Episode 19: Stevens to Winthrop
Note: We are so sorry to hear about the ongoing search for missing hiker Sherpa. We finished on September 26th and I am now updating blog posts retrospectively. Although we never overlapped with him our thoughts are with the family and rescue team. I am so grateful to be part of the hiking community, that has such a reserve of determination, hope, and love.
Stevens to Winthrop at Rainy Pass (Mile 2594)
On our way out of Skykomish, we got to check a box off of our thru-hike goal list right away. We rode the long haul back to Stevens in the back of a pick-up. The local gas station – which for some unknown reason blasts Abba music all the time – lets hikers use their ‘PCT hiker to trail’ sign to hitch, and it did the trick.
We stopped into Stevens to warm up after the truck ride and found Drogo waiting for us. But then a biker bought a round of drinks for the hikers in the pub and we lost him. It would have been so easy to stay, but we were on a schedule now. In 6 1/2 days, we were meeting Spoon’s cousins at Winthrop, which meant we’d have to average 20 miles a day over some pretty rugged terrain. Stevens pass is the last place on the PCT with any phone service, so we couldn’t afford to show up late, which meant no dragging our feet – and no mistakes.
It was cold at the trailhead, but we didn’t let that worry us. We soon heated up from hiking, but the falling night didn’t offer much promise of warmth. We were still on high alert from the night before so it was no surprise when I turned a corner to find Centerfold and Spoon setting up almost on top of some huckleberry bushes. It had started to sprinkle and I knew what they were thinking: better to stop now than get everything wet on the exposed ridge up ahead.
We all agreed to shoot for about 26 miles the next day, eager to keep our average on track and get to Rainy Pass on time. We had the intense focus of people who know that they will hit their target, as long as they don’t look away from it. This is September, after all. It’s the flu month of weather. We wouldn’t risk ignoring a spattering of rain any more than we would dismiss a cough or a light post-nasal drip while viruses lurk on every doorknob. It’s no longer the warm summer months, where a cloud crossing the sun only means shade and a runny nose can be attributed to allergies. Now a passing storm has the ability to endanger us, to steal our security, our momentum, and our time as surely as the flu. And like a mother bathing her children in Lysol or city-dweller behind a hospital mask, we are afraid of the slightest drip.
The next day, of course, we woke up to rain. And, true to form, Centerfold was gone in a flash. But this time, Spoon and I were only about half an hour behind him, and we had big hopes of catching up. The rain was light and, while not warm, it wasn’t uncomfortably cold. We wore gloves and rain jackets but the day and our movement heated us up enough that we were considering de-layering right about the time that Drogo popped around a turn in the trail and waved at us. Today was our first full day in the Glacier Peak wilderness, and we knew we would be almost entirely exposed and above 6,000 feet, so we hoped for better weather. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate.
A couple hours after we had reunited with Drogo, we stopped for a short break by an alpine lake, but the cold got us up and moving again after only about 15 minutes. We all watched as an enormously fat marmot scooted out of a hole in the rocks and sat, stoically watching the grey sky as if it knew something that we didn’t. Maybe because we didn’t want to think about the storm worsening, we started to make fun of him. But it wasn’t until Drogo yelled, “Hey fat boy!” that the Marmot took notice. His wise old face, decorated with scars and the bloat of a successful survivor, turned partially toward us. The one eye we could see squinted and he gave us a long, mean side-eye.
Of course, it was this instance that we all invoked for blame when the rain began again in earnest. We laughed, but soon our mind was taken off the marmot as a chill blossomed in the air and made our hands and feet ache. Instead of lightening up again, the rain continued to intensify and soon shards of water blew like needles into our faces. The familiar smell of ice crept up our sinuses and we felt the sting of hail. Balls of ice crunched under our feet, accumulating with an alarming frequency, and soon soft snow was brushing our skin.
We laughed. We were so caught off guard by the sudden onslaught of snow and it seemed so improbable; we were sure that it couldn’t last. But as we wound around the rolling cliffs, the world was grey and white.
We struggled forward, heads bent against the blowing snow, shouting conversation to each other. Soon, the trail was so blanketed in snow that the earth could only be seen in the wake of footprints. A white carpet extended beyond us and we looked around in horror, realizing that this would not stop soon.
We did what we always do, though; we hiked on. Just when I was starting to get too far inside my own head and the snow was beginning to chafe against my sanity, the most bizarre man appeared walking Southbound towards us.
“Animals!” He screamed at us, his frosted beard and hair blowing in the wind, his eyes wild. “You’re beasts! You’re almost there, almost to Canada!” He howled and screamed and hopped past us as we blinked the snow from our eyelids and stared at him in wonder. “I was there!” He yelled over his shoulder, “and now I’m going back!” His gear was in tatters and he was covered in snow. Was this what we looked like now too? “ANIMALS!” He yelled and the storm swallowed him.
Later, we came across a tent with a stove. Being miles from civilization and mildly hypothermic, it took us a while to remember that there were hunters up here. We wavered in our resolve and almost walked up to the huge tent flap to ask for entrance. Inside it would be warm enough to think and eat and breathe again. Inside we could melt our snow cloaks and unclasp our stiff hands. But we all knew if we went inside we would stop. That means we would have a short day, one that would be hard to make up for. We only had six days of food for 130 miles, more if we rationed – but snowstorms weren’t good for rationing. Setting up our tents would also be difficult on this cliff edge and with the weather worsening and our gear soaked, we couldn’t afford to take much time setting up our tents; once we stopped moving, we would have to act fast. So we pushed forward.
Shortly after that we saw the Double D’s and another hiker also hiking Southbound. Frightened by the blizzard conditions ahead, they had turned back because of the weather, which wasn’t good news for us who were still headed into it. We didn’t stop to chat long though, only to hear from them that “Centerfold is up ahead.” We thanked them and kept walking, but immediately regretted not asking for more information. We knew Centerfold was up ahead because we hadn’t seen him yet. It was good to know he hadn’t fallen off a cliff somewhere, but it didn’t help much with logistics. Was he going to go for a long day and push over the next exposed high point in this weather? Or would he stop early in light of the Armageddon that was raining down on us?
After many hours of walking, I must have gotten too wet under my rain gear because my torso stopped feeling warm. A deep bone cold stuck to my ribs and buried itself like ice in my stomach. I didn’t know if the others were feeling the same way – we were all in sight of each other but had given up trying to communicate hours ago – but I knew we had to stop soon and try to get warm. And then, with no warning, the storm stopped.
It was like someone had turned it off, or the clouds just lost interest. We watched them fly away, wisps of grey sweeping across the sky and baring colors – blue and pink and yellow in smears, just underneath that cloud layer. Some huge hand was spraying paint thinner on a black and white canvas and for the first time in days, we could see the layer underneath. And then we saw the rest of it. Everything around us was singular in its beauty. A light dusting of snow had crystalized on wildflowers and huckleberries alike; tall ferns and grasses bent in the wind, each blade accentuated by a line of white. It was so beautiful that we slowed down. We walked like we were in a trance, stopping to take pictures with our frozen fingers and just stare at the huge, snow covered mountains layering the distance, looming over a natural bowl filled with discarded clouds and outlined in crystal flowers. This could not possibly be the same trail we had labored through all day.
As if on cue, we picked up the scent of wood burning. Someone nearby had a successful campfire, against all odds. We relaxed; our bodies were extremely cold now that we had let ourselves stop, and we knew that smell meant that everything would be OK. Numbly, we walked around a knoll to an alpine lake, where we saw across a meadow the orange lick of flames.
We crossed the meadow to find a group of wet hikers huddled around a campfire being fed by a young, beardless man wearing heavy layers. We looked at him and back at his tent set-up; a two person tent underneath a well-pitched blue tarp, surrounded by gear and a cooler. It looked like he was here to stay for a while.
We came to find out that he was here for the high buck hunt, along with his friend. Washington State has this tradition of the high hunt: an eleven-day period that opens before the normal season bucks can be hunted – but only at elevation. Because the hunters are restricted to the alpine lakes, they have to hike in – and up. For eleven days in the middle of September, a small, hardy group of hunters excuse themselves from work, school, and family. The hunters come in packs, migrating up to the mountains with food and supplies to last them a week and a half in the backcountry.
Living at 5,000 feet, they wake up before dawn and hike out to a scouting spot every morning. The hunters lie with their belly on the earth and let the slowly lightening sky illuminate their targets where they graze on the dewy grass. They return to their tent mid-morning, when the deer are absent, laying low – and they pass the middle of the day with campfires, cards, and whiskey. Eventually, when and if they get a kill, they dress it in the backcountry and haul it out on big frame packs, one long trip at a time. It seemed like these men were out here for an exercise in patience, as a tribute to a time where our actions were more deliberate.
Now their quiet vacation was being overrun by a horde of hypothermic hikers. The young men were very kind, gathering more wood and breaking it up to feed the fire while this odd band of young and old people stood around shivering and talking in a mixture of languages. The warmth eventually broke through to us and we looked around. Vibes and Stretch were talking to the patient hunter excitedly, gesticulating with their arms. The Russian, Dirty Sal, was there and he was talking with a French man whose name is not blog appropriate – but for the sake of a good story we will call him ‘Bucket’, since it does at least rhyme. They had already set up their tents, and some of them – most notably Bucket – were attempting the risky endeavor of drying socks and shoes by the fire. Bucket is known for catastrophe, but even more so he is known for his lack of concern when catastrophe strikes. This is probably best illustrated by his shoes, which were melted by the end of the night.
We crept away to set up our tents after warming up; with the falling temperature and sun, we needed to get out of our wet clothes and eat warm food. We were both shivering violently by the time we were in our sleeping bags, heating up water for the hot chocolate packets that Drogo gave us. Lying there, listening to the light hail begin again, staring at our breath as it froze, it was hard to relax. Finally I said, “We’re not hiking the CDT.” And for the first time in a while, Spoon laughed.
We talked about the possibility of bailing out. We both knew we couldn’t do too many of these blizzard days in a row. While I was pretty sure we weren’t going to bail, I knew we were passing our last bail spot tomorrow before we got too deep into the Glacier Wilderness for turning around to be worth the effort. We had to make a decision and, in true Walltoski fashion, we put it off for tomorrow. “We’ll see how the weather is…” We mumbled and turned our faces into our sleeping bags to shiver our way through the night.
We slept fitfully in our tent. Most cold nights, our tent warms up inside by morning, but that night, the cold seemed to be clinging to us. Our bags were damp, the whole inside of the tent was damp. Everything was dew-covered and clammy, which made us afraid to unzip our rainfly. If it was another day like yesterday and our gear had no chance to dry out, then the smartest thing for us would be to take the bailout when we came to it. My bag is dry-down, so it’s water resistant – but Spoon’s bag is just down. If it gets wet, he’s in trouble.
Spoon, in his wet bag, was not having a particularly good morning. He was frozen and miserable. I could see immediately that, if today was going to be saved, this was one of the rare times where I would have to do it. I finally summoned the courage to reach out to unzip the rain fly and… nothing happened. I couldn’t unzip it. I forced the zipper up, bit by bit, and discovered the problem when sheets of ice broke off and fell on me. A thick layer of ice covered the tent.
Before Mark realized that we were entombed in ice, I shook off the rainfly on my side and got my shoes on. When I looked up, I knew for the first time in twenty four hours that we would be able to finish this section and make it to Rainy Pass.
We were in shadow because of the mountain behind us – but across the little lake I could see the meadow, and it was bathed in warm, bright light from a cloudless sky. Where the snow had melted, colorful tents, sleeping bags, and hiker clothes were strewn over the grass, drying in the sun like a gypsy yardsale. Bucket was yelling about his shoe, which gaped open on one side of his foot and flopped when he walked. “Whatever!” He shouted in a thick accent. “I will just walk in this to Canada! Bucket!*”
*Not what Bucket actually yelled.
It was a more welcome sight than I ever would have expected, and enough of a catalyst to make me jump out of the tent. I immediately started grabbing all of the gear I could carry and tottering around the lake to deposit it in a sun puddle. Half an hour later, we sat next to our drying gear with Drogo, drinking hot coffee and soaking up the inexplicable view of snowy mountaintops while we warmed up for the first time in days.
It was 11 AM by the time we finally got going. The hunters had come back from their scouting and were stoking the fire. The second one showed up and smiled at his friend, “Did you see anything?”
“Saw nine – seven doe and two buck,” The shy hunter said, “I was close enough to hit one of the buck but wasn’t sure about the shot.”
Coming from the East Coast hunting culture, I had to wonder as I walked away, “What is this world where hunters don’t take a single shot? Where they wait for the right conditions, live like the deer for days, and carry their meat ten miles to their cars?” As we walked over the day’s stunning landscape – snow dusting the mountains and brilliant scarlet, yellow, and dark green painting the aged huckleberry leaves – I thought a lot about the hunters.
We spend our time outside walking. We move over the landscape and disappear into our own heads. Our senses are only tuned into what we need to notice: pain, animals, campfire, wild berries that we pick as we walk. But we aren’t experiencing these things as extremes. There’s an element of detachment when you are a thru-hiker, one that we purposefully cultivate. Instead of being taken in by the world outside, we are swallowed by the movement itself. To comfort us when the day is hard, our minds build walls.
These men who were out here for ten days were subsisting on the land. Staying still in the frozen landscape, they were surviving because they could make a fire each day. They hunted to eat, laying against the ground, breathing in its rich, wet smell and staring for hours at one spot. There was a part of me that wondered, and still wonders, if their experience isn’t more connected to nature than ours.
But this day in particular couldn’t simply be walked over. It was shockingly beautiful, maybe our most beautiful day on trail. Everything was alive with the snow. Snowfall is one of those things that we think silences the world outside – and it does make things quiet; The cold slows down the world. But at the same time, the silence that snow brings emphasizes sound and movement. The little animals – Pika, rabbits, mice – still leap and scurry and leave their tracks written on the snow, birds still fill the empty space with song, plants shrug off white cloaks and sprinkle the ground with ice. Sometimes after an early snow storm, it feels like the world is existing more loudly than before, as if to remind the winter that this isn’t it’s time, yet.
With our late start, we were climbing up to Glacier Peak at sunset. Even though we knew we needed to get up to the top with enough light, we stopped on trail dozens of times to stare at the sky. Husky clouds fanned out lowly across the horizon and looked like smoke, rising blood red off of the distant ridgeline. It was like staring into a wildfire.
At the top, we left the last light behind and traversed across the open flat expanse. It was dark now, enough that we gave in and switched on our headlamps to navigate the rocks. The cool, blue glacier rose up beside us like a slumbering giant with one eye open. Walking around a glacier at night is an experience I have only had twice to this date, but both times were breathtaking. There is something about a glacier at night – maybe how the darkness highlights the sharp white of snow and almost seems to find blues in the rock – that makes the experience feel thick with awe. There is a cold, quiet power that surrounds these behemoths at all times, but when you approach them in the dark, it feels like you are sharing in that power, like you and the glacier are the only part of the world that is real.
We nearly ran down the trail afterwards, our headlamps bobbing as we skipped over rocks. It was one of the most exhilarated moments I can remember having on the trail. The cold from the ice reached out its fingers to us and all around us was night sky. Above, the milky way was a bright smear on black and below us, headlamps of other hikers imitated a celestial carpet to descend into. We stopped at Mica Lake, making it about twenty miles that day, and camped next to the dark reflection of the water.
The night was cold, but not as cold as it had been the night before. When the sun crested over a nearby mountain and hit our tent, we were excited to see the world we had been blind to the night before. Outside of our tent, it looked like a Patagonia Ad. The bright sun warmed the ledge we were on and right next to us was a shimmering alpine lake. To our other side, the view opened up over snow-capped mountains and jagged black rock.
Drogo, Spoon and I stood next to our tents, looking out in amazement. If we wanted to meet Spoon’s cousins on time, we had to go 70 miles in about two and a half days. So we did what anyone would do – we made coffee and sat there for about two hours.
After that, of course, the day was all business. We hiked hard to make up for lost time but started to actually get a little worried about making our mark as the trail seemed to worsen throughout the day. The trail in this section has been pretty rough – lots of downed trees, some sections where user-trails cut off switchbacks because the end of the switchback was actually torn off by a rockslide – but today was especially awful. We spent a lot of the day sliding around tree trunks and hanging off of roots. Spoon was stung by hornets a couple more times on the calf as we unwittingly stumbled into nests.
By 6 PM, we had gone only a little over 18 miles. We knew that we could hike into the night and get at least five miles further, so although we hadn’t seen many other hikers in this section, we didn’t stop to talk to the people we saw off trail at a campfire, even though they yelled out to us. As far as I was concerned, nothing could possibly stop us from going further that night.
And then, in the middle of the second most remote section of the entire PCT, my personal hero showed up with lasagna and beer.
I looked down because I heard my name. “Chuckles! Wait!” Looking through the trees, I could see a familiar, but completely impossible, face looking back up at me. “Come down here!”
The guys grumbled because they were of the same mindset – we had to make miles. But we turned around and walked down the little trail to their campsite. But I wasn’t grumpy or impatient any more; I was trying to control my heartbeat.
A figure in a puffy jacket ran up to us and then, suddenly, I was being hugged by Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson. Anish holds the fastest unsupported time for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – and the same record for the Appalachian Trail. She has backpacked both of these long distance trails faster than any other person. She’s essentially the most incredible endurance athlete in the world. And she was here, in the middle of nowhere, offering me a Budweiser and a slice of homemade lasagna.
I was so shocked, I almost cried. Instead, I couldn’t stop laughing. Many people don’t know what Anish looks like, they only know her name. On the trails, hikers talk about her everywhere – in shelters, in hostels, as they hike. “Can you believe someone did this trail in 60 days without any help? That’s 45 miles a day!” Out here, Anish’s story is more than a record; it’s legend.
As it turns out, Anish lives in Washington still and is currently doing this stretch (about three times faster than us) to train for her next record attempt, the Arizona Trail (spoiler: she made it.) Dirty Sal and Bucket were there already, wolfing down lasagna. At some point, Dirty Sal realized who Anish was and shouted, “That was you??” After that, he insisted on a picture and couldn’t stop beaming. Bucket, who had been distracted during this interaction, looked up from the two slices of lasagna he was holding and asked Anish, “So… have you hiked the PCT?” She smiled and said, without any irony, “Yes.”
After that, we were in for the night. We set up our tent and drank around the campfire with Anish and her hiking partner for the rest of the night. Anish reassured us that we would be able to make it to Rainy Pass in time, even though we had our doubts. “I don’t know if we can do 50 miles in two days if the trail keeps up like this,” I said, but she insisted, “The trail gets a lot easier from here out. The hardest part is over.” Listening to my hero talk, sitting by a warm fire and eating hot food, I knew that things had changed again in the magical way that they shift from day to day or hour to hour on the trail. We talked about the CDT, about my fears that we weren’t up for the snow, the navigation, the length of the final and third trail of the Triple Crown. Spoon and I had discussed doing it in sections, but after the heavy snow we received the other day we were only half joking about turning our back on it completely.
They say you should never quit when its raining. It’s rule number one of thru-hiking. That night, I fell asleep thinking about what Anish had said, and knowing that someday we are going to do the CDT. It might not be 2017 or 2018; actually, it very well might be 25 years from now – but I’m sold again. Some day, we’ll be triple crowners.
Hilariously, Centerfold had left a message with Anish for us but it was lost in translation, perhaps because what we’re doing doesn’t make any sense. We’re skipping Stehekin – which, due to a fantastic bakery stop, nobody skips – in order to make it to Rainy Pass in time to meet up with Spoon’s cousins. Centerfold had told Anish he would meet us, but we weren’t sure if he was coming to Winthrop with us from Rainy Pas or not. Both Stehekin and Rainy Pass have no phone service, so we had no way of really contacting each other. But either way, we figured we’d see him before we finished.
As we discovered the next day, Anish was right about the terrain. We didn’t quite get the “Anish start,” as she calls it – a 4:30 AM wakeup time – but we did leave early for us, at least. The day was mostly downhill, and the terrain immediately improved. No downed trees and rough brush. We made it 28.5 miles and camped by the side of the trail at dusk, feeling like we were in charge of our timing again.
The next day we woke up a little after dawn and got to the Stehekin ranger station at 9AM. There’s a bus that picks up and drops off hikers there. We unfortunately didn’t have time to ride to the Stehekin Bakery and back in time to still make it to Rainy Pas by 6, but one of them drops off at 9:30 in the morning and we had a suspicion that Centerfold would be on it.
We also had an opportunity, while sitting at the ranger station, to ration out the remainder of our food. Six days is longer than we usually spend on a section, and we hadn’t been expecting the cold weather. We finished off our jerky, trail mix, and coffee for breakfast and split up the bars that were left, which cleaned us out. All we had left after that was spices.
But, it was good motivation to get moving. The day was an easy, level one. Not much climbing, and in a more developed and accessible section of trail than we’d been on – which means fewer fallen trees again. We had 22 miles to do that day, and we made it to Rainy Pass at about 5:30.
We were exultant. One week ago, we had told Spoon’s relatives that we would meet them after 130 miles of some of the roughest trail we’ve experienced yet – and we actually made it with half an hour to spare.
Of course, we hadn’t actually agreed on which parking lot to meet in. And there were several. We didn’t see them in the lower parking lot so we headed across the pass to the upper parking lot – and found trail magic! A couple who had just hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail was there grilling up hot dogs. I couldn’t have been more excited to see them if they were offering to pay off our student loans. Spoon and I quickly ate two hot dogs – we had run out of snacks a few hours before that – and then came to the realization that his cousins weren’t in this parking lot either.
That was when we started to get worried. We walked back to the road and Spoon started to try to hitch a ride. He thought they might be at the trailhead further back and was worried that now they might be hiking in to find us. Just then, a car pulled over for us. In it was Spoon’s two cousins and in the back seat, holding a sticky bun the size of my face… was Centerfold.
“How are you here?” We yelled at him, laughing and hugging everyone. As it turns out, Centerfold had gotten off the second bus back from Stehekin – the one that arrived at noon. Good thing he’s a fast hiker. He had booked it to get to Rainy Pass and catch us on time, and as he was rushing past the first trailhead, he walked by two hikers that looked very confused. They stopped him and asked, “Have you seen three hikers doing the PCT?” They assumed that we would be hiking together with Centerfold, so they were looking for the three of us!
“Well, do you know their trail names?” Centerfold asked. “Well, no…” Said Spoon’s cousin John. “I don’t know if I can help you then,” said Centerfold. He was about to walk away when John said, “If you see them, their real names are Maggie, Mark, and Jon.”
That was when Centerfold apparently said, “I’m Jon!” And finally, after a week of mixed messages, everything came together.
We were whisked back to Kelly and John’s house in Winthrop where we showered and destroyed steaks. I was so excited, I almost forgot about our packages. We had bumped ahead all of the friend care packages that got lost in the shuffle and sent them to Kelly and John’s house. We were so overcome with all of the cards, snacks, and ridiculous quantities of alcohol, that it took a moment to realize what was missing – the box that held my passport.
We have seventy miles of our 2,660 mile odyssey left – and after five months, I might not be able to enter Canada. I fell asleep full of steak, accomplishment, and worry, hoping that the morning, as usual, would bring answers.
Other links to check out:
Little Spoon’s Instagram (Mark Santoski)
The Camel of Corvallis’ Instagram
Centerfold’s Instagram (Jon Graca)
Toe Touch’s Instagram (Julie McCloskey)
Toe Touch’s Blog
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