The Last Hurdle: Washington Weather

North from White Pass

It’s a quick turnaround in Portland. We arrive at night and are out the next morning for a three-hour ride to White Pass. There’s a whole cluster of hikers at the store, none of whom we’ve met before.

White Pass to Snoqualmie Pass is pretty straightforward. We meet a few new people in passing and have a lunch just before Snoqualmie with some of Head Start’s friends from Seattle.

We enjoy dinner at the brewery at the pass, and so far, things are smooth and enjoyable.

Coming out of Snoqualmie, Head Start and I start to get a taste of Washington’s reputation.

The Rugged North

The original intent is to camp eight hours from the trailhead before dark, but the loose rocky terrain slows our pace, and we only make fourteen miles by 9pm.

Rugged beauty

The next days are cold and sometimes rainy, and this has a compounding affect. After nearly 2500 miles, we have passed the phase where we are fit and triumphant. Now we are wearing down, like an athlete going into triple overtime after having played several games already this week. The wet and the cold stiffen the joints, which makes us slower, which keeps us exposed to the elements longer, and the cycle continues.

Coming into Stevens Pass, we hustle to try to make it to the cafe for lunch before it closes. Ironically, they decide to close an hour early because the weather is miserable enough that their business is slow. We take this as a sign to head to Leavenworth and enjoy some lodging and a fancy dinner.

Refreshed for the moment, we find ourselves hiking out of Stevens Pass the next day with some defiance for the weather forecast. It will be sunny for two days, but we know what’s coming: rain for a week and temperatures in the 30s and 40s.

How Will the Final Days be Defined?

It’s been a goal of mine to appreciate the final days on trail. This is easier to do in the 50-degree sunshine.

I had envisioned a final week of shorter miles, sitting on rocks looking out over valleys and waterfalls, and generally reflecting on the experience of the last six months. With the weather being what it is at the end of September in northern Washington, it’s a starkly different ordeal.

The rain hits on Saturday as we go up and around Glacier Peak. Darkness falls as we reach a campsite a couple of miles before our intended goal, and without debate we hurriedly throw the tent up. The next morning there is a forgiving clear sky, so we decide to dry things out before departing around 10am.

We spend the pre-hike morning checking the notes for our route to the finish line, and discover we’ve made an error in our calculation which instantly adds ten miles to our plan. Because of this, we walk until midnight today and are going to be up at 6am the next day.

We exchange a sentiment before bed at midnight: “Tomorrow’s going to be the hardest day on trail I think.”

Head Start navigates a crossing like a boss.

We hiked in the Sierra snow for three weeks. There have been blisters and aches and struggles to walk from the tent to a creek for water. There have been deep dives into harnessing mental toughness to get up and down mountains. This morning, waking up and putting on these wet clothes and shoes and staring down 20 miles of frigid climbing is a challenge that vies for top position on the list of challenges.

Along the walk today we debate with those that pass us by: are we going through the closure to Stehekin or down the detour to Holden Village?

Some want to walk through the fire closure. It’s only eight more miles than the Holden ferry route would be, and it’s so rainy that no one would question that it would be devoid of smoke and fire encroachment. But it would mean another night in the rain, and an official closure gives us an out. Afterall, we took the alt to Crater Lake, detoured around some of Baden-Powell, and had a handful of other one or two miles missed. What’s the big deal?

We get to the detour by midday and had made up our minds perhaps thirty minutes before. We need shelter, and Holden Village is the shortest path to the warm and the dry.

The Hardest Hour

Between this trail junction and the descent to Holden lies Cloudy Pass, a loose granite climb that switchbacks into some trees before returning to a rugged wind tunnel at the top.

Head Start’s knee and foot and hip are all in dire shape, and she audibly gasps every twenty paces or so. My pain is duller and more spread out, so I just kind of breathe hard and deep through each step, like I’m blowing out candles on the world’s most miserable birthday cake over and over. Before the trees, I feel like I could collapse right there and just go numb. After the trees and over the top into 60 mph sideways rain pelting, I just start laughing maniacally.

Finally, we are over and descending, and the legs continue the blind muscle-memory slog for the eleven miles down to Holden.

And Now We Can Enjoy It

Holden Village is a welcome refuge. We are thirty minutes late for the community dinner, but the staff pulls out leftovers and makes sure we are fed. There is no internet, and no shuttle to the ferry dock tomorrow, so we take one of the most relaxing chore-free zeroes we’ve had in the last six months.

The forecast for the remaining 89 miles from Stehekin to Manning Park has rain and snow, but with clear skies maybe returning for our last two days to the border. I write this in an adirondack chair after eating the famous Stehekin cinnamon roll and am looking forward to an easy (if wet) twenty miles to another night off in Mazama tomorrow night.

Just days to go. Amazing.

This Mazama night in theory is the worst of what’s left for weather, so hopefully our last days from Rainy Pass to the border bring that imagined cherish and reflection time. Whatever these next five days bring, I’m sure I will remember them all the days of my life.


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