Longer Post about My Short PCT Hike

Although I’d planned this trip, I didn’t feel really “prepared.” I think that’s because I’ve spent one night on the trail in the last few years, and this was just my first multi-day solo trip in about twenty years. This was also the first backcountry test of the hammock. Lots of variables! Fortunately, this is an area that’s fairly well-travelled, and there are a lot of forest roads that intersect the trails; if a hiker is in distress, it’s fairly easy to get to a road and get to where one may encounter a person with a motor vehicle. (I have an app on my phone that allows me to download the USGS 7.5 maps. It’s a treasure, because I can carry a boggling number of maps with me and they’re free. The free maps are not up-to-date,  but they’re good enough.)

I got on the trail around 6:00 p.m. Friday. I was surprised to see only one other vehicle when I arrived at the trailhead; another arrived as I was getting my gear together. 7-27 start of PCT hike

I knew I’d  be setting up camp relatively late Friday, so I planned for dinner to be a peanut butter-banana sandwich. (Made with my first attempt at recreating Wild Friends’ chocolate coconut peanut butter. I made mine without sweetener; it’s good, but the sweetener definitely makes it better.) Sunset was at 8:47, so I planned to select a campsite by 8:00 p.m. And then I kept going… I found a decent-enough spot around 8:30, and had everything set up by nine.

Hammock camping has the advantage of not needing a flat, soft spot. However, I do require two trees of appropriate size with relatively little on the ground beneath them. The spot I found Friday night was about 40′ off the trail. The trees were a little too close together, and there was some brush beneath them. The too-close makes it impossible to get the right hanging angle, and the hammock had more curve to it than I (or any sane person) like. But darkness was chasing away the day, so it became Good Enough.

Because I was off the trail and fairly invisible, I opted to go without the tarp. I was futzing with the insect netting when a flash of light caught my eye. I doused my own flashlight so as not to draw attention to myself and waited. Sure enough, there were a couple of hikers coming down the trail in the dark. They were just a few miles from Lodge Lake, which has several tent sites. Still, a couple of miles in the dark would feel like an eternity to me.

I ate my above-described sandwich and crawled into my hammock. And then I heard the gunfire. *blink blink blink* That’s a disadvantage to being so close to forest roads. Hikers generally aren’t the ones doing target shooting because guns and ammo are heavy. The gunfire was intermittent, and the last shot was fired a little before 10:30. I drifted off to sleep.

Sunrise was around 5:30 a.m., and that’s about when I woke up. I thought I could sleep in, but I mostly just lied in the hammock thinking about sleeping. I should have gotten out of the hammock when I first awoke. I was still puttering about camp when a singing northbounder came by around 7:00 a.m., unwittingly shaming my sloth.

Because I’d eaten dinner so late, I wasn’t really hungry Saturday morning. This set me up for a miserable day. I ate my breakfast – yellow corn grits – but I failed to put snacks in my snack holes (a/k/a pockets). Breakfast was under 200 calories, and that is no where near enough food for what I was doing. A while into the morning’s hike, I recognized I needed food. I stopped to get some food out of my pack and discovered I’d accidentally left food in my pack overnight. (Everything else was in an animal-resistant container tied to a tree.) Fortunately, the local fauna were unmotivated by rootbeer-flavored Jelly Bellys and Hammer Endurolytes.

As it turned out, that wasn’t a great choice for me, either. It’s great for distance runs and cycling, but it didn’t work out as a great hiking fuel.PCT hike - mirror lake sign wearing icecot I was already having a less-than stellar day, so I decided I’d stop at Mirror Lake for lunch and a break. Near Mirror Lake, there’s a trail junction that leads down to the Iron Horse Trail. I was already considering heading down it and giving up. Alas, I am too stubborn for that.

Mirror Lake is understandably very popular. It’s about eight miles from the Snoqualmie Pass TH. It has a lot of space for camping. It’s a relatively large sub-alpine lake, and it’s lovely. I treated myself to a splash in the lake to cool off and wash off some of the trail. And then came lunch! I was hungry, so I snacked first. And then I made lunch… it ended up being too much food. So, after a morning of dragging because I hadn’t eaten enough, I now didn’t feel well because I ate too much.

PCT hike lovely buggy pond
You see a lovely pond. I see a hangout for millions of biting insects.

I considered finding a place to camp near the lake and then heading down in the morning. But again, alas, I am a stubborn person. I resumed my trek toward Stampede Pass. My overall feeling didn’t improve. I thought it might, as the first mile is mostly downhill. Even so, my pace was pretty slow – demoralizingly slow.

I encountered a packless northbound hiker. He asked about campsites at Twilight Lake. I’d just passed a trail junction to Twilight Lake, and I let him know it was about a half-mile back. He told me he & his companions had planned to camp at Twilight Lake, but the spot they found wasn’t a good one. He left them and his pack to scout out other spots, so encountering me and the news that there’s another way to campsites at Twilight Lake was a blessing. As I write this, it occurs to me that even though I was having a crappy day I had the chance to improve other hikers’ day; that makes the suckiness less sucky.

As we traveled back to where his companions waited, he asked where I was from. He got excited when I said I live in the Tri-Cities and said “What a coincidence! I live in Mountain City!” Ah, the other Tri-Cities… I laughed, and let him know I live in Pasco, Washington, but the Tennessee Tri-Cities come up often when I do web searches so I knew what he was talking about. I let him know that we’re famous for Hanford and vineyards, and he offered his thanks as he’s a fan of wine.

We returned to the spot where his tired companions waited, and he introduced me to the group as their savior. PCT hike - yakima pass signThey were near the sign for Twilight Lake, but the area looked like a horrifically buggy place. I let them know Mirror Lake was just another half-mile past the trail junction I mentioned, and while it was already crowded they would probably be able to find a spot somewhere. It was longer than the 14-mile day they’d planned, but at least they’d be rewarded with a lovely, cool lake to splash in.

This was a difficult afternoon. I really did want to quit. I reflected on the numerous thru-hikers’ writings I’ve read. They all suffer. At times, the journey is really miserable. Viruses. Failures of equipment or the body. Bad times brought on by poor decision-making, insufficient preparation, or bad luck. It’s incumbent upon the hiker to discern the difference between misery that is temporary and a true indicator that it’s time to quit. I decided that Saturday was just a bad day. I would find a camp early to give myself plenty of time to relax, get a good night’s sleep, and have a better day on Sunday.

PCT - short steep shaded climb
At least this hill was shaded!

 

 

I camped at the headwaters of a tributary of Meadow Creek. There’s a small tent site nearby.  I’d passed through an area of forest that looked like good hammock sites, but I needed to be absolutely certain there was water available. A while after I claimed the site, a couple of northbounders came through. I think they were planning on the site I’d claimed; I let them know of the other spots up the hill. Truth be told, there was room for more where I was, although it would have been crowded. I wish I’d thought of offering to share if they couldn’t find another spot, but since they didn’t come back I figure they either found another spot or didn’t consider their situation desperate enough to ask.

I’m really glad I stopped when I did. I wasn’t hungry, but I made myself snack throughout the evening so I wouldn’t put myself back in a serious calorie deficit. I had plenty of daylight left to set up my camp and relax before sunset.PCT hike - camped near Meadow Creek Because I was right next to the trail, I put up the tarp for the extra privacy. Here, the trees were a better distance apart, but there’s a log beneath me. I couldn’t get the hammock rigged up just right, and a few times I ended sitting on the log. (It was still more comfortable than lying on the ground, as the hammock was supporting almost all of my weight.)

I woke at 2:00 a.m. and kinda needed to pee. I debated getting up, and finally decided to. I’m so glad I did: I was treated to the sight of the planet Mars in its reddest glory. I can rarely tell the difference between stars and planets (they tend to all ‘twinkle’ to me) and Mars rarely looks red to me. Thanks to the huge dust storm on Mars, it looked really red Saturday night. Even with the full moon, Mars was very bright in the early morning sky, and I went back to sleep feeling especially blessed.

I had a more-substantial breakfast (oatmeal with walnuts & dried tart cherries) Sunday morning. PCT frogI went to the stream to pump water and was welcomed by a local. I saw more frogs than any other animals this trip. They’re kind hosts, though. While they kept a watchful eye, they didn’t seem to mind sharing their water. In addition to this frog, there was one where I stopped for lunch on Sunday, a pair at a little waterfall pool where I pumped water, and a large one along the trail at another spot. It must be the right time in the water cycle to see so many frogs. (Along the PCT section I did, I never went more than a few miles without passing water.)

After the folks who passed my campsite early Saturday evening, I didn’t see or hear another hiker all night or in the morning. I left camp, and as I was hiking along I began to wonder how much longer it would be before I’d see another. My feet slid out from underneath me and I lost my footing: I ended up in the dirt just as another hiker appeared. I was unhurt – other than the bruise to my ego – but how ironic that I hadn’t seen another hiker in more than twelve hours and one would appear just after I fell on my rear end.

I hiked five miles Sunday morning, which is almost as much as I hiked all day Saturday. I stopped for lunch at another seasonal stream with a resident frog. Lesson learned from the previous day: I didn’t cook lunch. I ate a Luna bar and some nuts. Some northbound thru-hikers paused at the same stream, and I ended up chatting with them for longer than I expected to. I shared my recommendation of Red Mountain Coffee at Snoqualmie Pass, as one of them was really looking forward to ‘real’ coffee with real cream in it. I lingered far longer at lunch than I’d planned. Stampede Pass was just a few miles away at this point, with a 430′ climb up and about 600′ of downhill between me and it.

I made it to the top of the hill and saw the cell towers on another ridge line. Sure enough – I had a T-Mobile LTE signal! I paused to send updates to The Hubs. (An app I’m using lets me share where I am, so I marked each place I’d camped.) And then down the hill I headed.

I planned to stop at Stampede Pass and pump water at Lizard Lake. I figured I’d need enough for dinner and possibly breakfast the next morning, depending up where I camped that night. I was delighted to find a pair of trail angels parked at the pass. Brian, trail name Barista, called out, “hello hiker!” to every passing hiker and offered ice-cold soda, hand-washing water, and a veggie burger. Given that I was on the trail for just a few days I didn’t feel I ‘deserved’ a burger, but I gladly accepted an ice-cold store-brand Dr. Pepper. Barista thru-hiked the entire trail in 2015, and did sections in 2017. The couple live in Seattle and to escape the heat there this past weekend they loaded up their vehicle & played trail angel. Several thru-hikers joined the group while I was there. I enjoyed the company and getting information from the others. Once again, I tarried longer than I’d planned. When I mentioned I needed to pump water and head down the road, Barista offered water they’d brought along with them. I accepted, and off I went.

Hiking down the road was no fun. The most positive thing about it was that was downhill, but roads offer little shade and even though all but one of the drivers slowed down it was quite dusty. I was happy to get to the Iron Horse Trail; although it’s an old railroad grade, it’s more shaded and the lack of motor vehicles meant very little dust.

My Garmin 910’s battery died after I turned onto the IHT, so I switched to Strava on my phone. I was getting weary, too. I made it to where the IHT is along Keechelus Lake. I cross over Meadow Creek, just as I had at the beginning of my day’s trek. Shortly after that, I found a stealth campsite off the trail and decided it was a good time to call it a day.

Once again, I found myself debating whether to have dinner. Fortunately, I recognized this as a sign of how desperately I needed to eat: skipping dinner was not an option. PCT - sundays dinnerI started simmering my home-dehydrated noodles, pasta sauce, zucchini, and ground beef. It needed more seasoning, but it made a big pot of a hot, gooey mess — perfect camp food! It was more than I could eat, even.

This campsite wasn’t perfect for hammocks: the best trees were too far apart and one was too small — it actually leaned a bit toward me. The trees being too far apart means the hammock is too flat & too tight. I was almost sitting on the ground, but that’s better than it being too high. Given the privacy of the campsite, I skipped using the tarp. I’m glad I did, as it was a very warm night.

I slept until 6:40 Monday morning – an hour after sunrise, and the latest I slept during this trek. I skipped breakfast and opted for snacks instead. Again, probably a stupid idea. I underestimated how much this walk on a flat trail would take out me. On the plus side, I had all day. I stopped frequently, including a lengthy break at the campsites at Cold Creek. There, I dropped my pack at one of the campsites and wandered down to the creek to relax, finish reading Morning Prayer, and pump water from the creek. This canticle was part of Morning Prayer: “Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.” And I did. PCT - Cold Creek at Lake Keechelus

I was very happy to drop my pack when I arrived at the Keechelus Lake access to the IHT. I still had four miles to go to get back to my truck, but from here the rest of the trip was on asphalt and as with the road down from Stampede Pass it was almost entirely without shade.

I stopped at Red Mountain Coffee for a smoothie — it was cold and sweet — and then finished the walk to my truck. I’d spent the last several hours dreaming about food – pizza! no, a burger & a beer! no, shrimp fried rice! – and yet I suddenly wasn’t hungry. I knew that was temporary, though. I decided I’d stop at Mountain High Hamburgers – not as big as Miner’s, but I knew I wouldn’t make it to Yakima without food. And yes, it was delicious.

All in all, this was a good weekend. I learned a lot, much of which I discussed in another post. In the future, I’m likely to switch to instant oatmeal to make breakfast quicker. (Not the individual packets, though. I like controlling the sweetener and adding my own flavors – like dried tart cherries & spices.) Lunches need to be stuff that doesn’t need to be cooked (although on longer trips I may include one or two cooked lunches to switch things up). On multi-day trips, trail mix must include sweet stuff. It makes it more interesting to eat, and I need the sugar calories. I need to rig up a way to have a hydration tube readily accessible. My expedition pack has a slot for a hydration bladder; my smaller, external frame pack doesn’t. I hike with a pair of trekking poles, and grabbing a water bottle to drink slows me down. I’ll drink more water if I can sip at will.

I was carrying too much stuff. I came home with about 2 pounds of food. That’s partly because I didn’t eat enough, but it’s still too much extra. The hammock can be cold, so I had both sleeping bags with me. The 45°F bag easily converts to a hammock underquilt, and I brought the 25°F bag to use as a sleeping bag. It was so warm this past weekend I didn’t need a underquilt and I never took the 25°F bag out of my pack. I also carried a rain jacket, a fleece jacket, a warm hat, and gloves — all of which were completely unnecessary in the weekend’s hot, dry weather. I can’t say I regret carrying them, though. My pack was about 37 pounds when I started, not including water. That’s heavier than it needed to be for this weekend, but it was a good test. I can probably get away with about a 40-pound pack for a week-long trip, but my body will have trouble carrying that much weight. That gives me incentive to workout by climbing Badger or Candy with a 35-40 pound pack. (Or, if it’s a 100°F, using the stair machine at the club!)

Another reckoning: some of my stuff is too heavy. I have an Pur Hiker water filter. Yup, so old the company is now owned by its primary competitor, Katadyn. It works great, but the system weighs over a pound. I noticed most other distance hikers carrying a Sawyer Squeeze – that thing weighs three ounces. Given that my Pur is about twenty years old, I really should replace the filter unit. And guess what? The replacement filter costs more than the Sawyer Squeeze, and the Sawyer Squeeze never needs a filter replacement. *ding ding ding* We have a winner!

I found I only used one utensil all weekend – the spork. It’s probably pointless to also carry a spoon, a fork, and a dining knife. This may vary depending upon my planned meals, but the spork is the winner. My cookset is very light – it’s titanium, and it was a wonderful splurge as an impoverished college student – put I may not need to carry both pans if I’m travelling alone. There are a lot of other little things I can envision to shave a few ounces here & there.

I have a week off in September. I’d planned to hike from Chinook Pass to Stampede Pass. As much as I struggled this weekend, I need to evaluate if that’s really “do-able.” I’m going to consider some other sections of the PCT. Fortunately, I really enjoy the planning part.

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