**First, just an apology from my writing hiatus. I did not get eaten by the trail, I am home safe in Seattle, ready to fill you in with the end of my journey!**
After a somewhat harrowing first stretch in Washington, Atlas and I wanted nothing more than to just enjoy a day resting in Packwood. But as is the unfortunate case with all zero days, there was plenty to get done. First, we confirmed the rumor we’d heard while hiking–the trail closure ahead had expanded. The trail was closed from White Pass (where we had just exited) to Snoqualmie Pass, 100 miles ahead. The only detour options were on roads and very indirect, adding many miles to the stretch. Definitely not my jam, especially as I still recovered from that stomach bug, but we worked on a plan for Atlas to walk around the fire.
After I sent him on his way with a few of the most fun and committed road-walkers we know, Taylor and the Swiss, I had the whole day to make it to Seattle. My plan was to spend time at home and join Atlas when he made it to Snoqualmie Pass in four or five days. This would give me time to get well, catch up on blogging, send our last two resupplies, and beef up my gear with some items for the colder weather I knew would arrive soon.
And indeed, by the time Atlas was close to Snoqualmie Pass, the forecast was nasty–days of rain, freezing rain, and snow at higher elevations. It started just a couple hours before Cameron drove me to meet Atlas. As we stood in a parking lot just off the Snoqualmie Pass exit of i-90, the thought of getting back on the trail had never been less appealing. Cold rain fell steadily, heavy but not torrential, as if it were pacing itself, promising to be there for the long haul. If it hadn’t been mid-September already, I would have waited it out. But I knew it could easily get worse in a couple weeks. There was nothing to do but find the trailhead and start walking.
A few stationary minutes in the rain had chilled my body, and I welcomed the uphill start to this stretch. By the time we’d gone a mile I was mostly warm and still mostly dry. We passed a group of day hikers- who would go out in this for fun, we wondered. After five miles and 2000 ft up, the terrain had become rocky, the trees thinned out to reveal dramatic views of cloud-shrouded, snow-dusted jagged ridges. The rain changed, first with icy clumps before it was small, icy flakes. A handful of backpackers were headed in the other direction, trips cut short, warning us that the weather would persist for days.
The sun’s meager affects dwindled as the day wore on, the grey becoming a bit darker and the temperature dropping slowly. Flakes gathered on the ground, and we slowed, careful not to stumble over rocks hidden beneath new snow. It was harder to stay warm at that pace. I got out my ski gloves and struggled to put them on my frozen hands. Around five, we realized we needed to think about where to camp. We had become accustomed to setting up camp at the first spot we found once we were ready to quit for the day. But in those conditions, we wanted to camp below the snow line if possible. As you get higher, temps are colder, tent sites are more likely to be exposed to the wind, and the snow is deeper. These things make a big difference, even in the shelter of a tent.
Despite having gone not quite ten miles, I wanted to camp within the next hour. So when we realized that the next tent site below 5000 ft was in 6 miles, we faced the trail ahead with somber resolve. The next 3 hours were very unpleasant. Moisture was finding its way into my gloves and boots. I wasn’t moving enough to keep my hands and feet warm. Soon my whole body felt cold. I knew I needed more layers, but I didn’t want to open my pack or take off my raincoat to get my puffy and put it on–it would let in snow. This entire time I was all too aware that the next three days could be just like this.
We continued and just as it was getting dark, the trail dropped to a point where the precipitation was an icy mix again. We stopped at the first flat spot we found, and made camp as quickly as possible. Unable to feel my hands, I struggled setting up the tent and afterwards, changing out of my wet hiking clothes. I wanted put on dry clothes and get in my sleeping bag right away, but as I took things out of my pack, I realized there was a lot of water, and I was not sure where it was coming from. My sleeping bag was wet in a couple places. After turning everything inside out, I found a couple holes in my once-waterproof pack liner. My already-bleak outlook on this stretch darkened.
I didn’t think it possible but the next morning the situation became more discouraging. I woke feeling underwater–clogged nose, ears, and sinuses; a pulsing, dull headache; and a sore throat. I didn’t want to move. Body heat had warmed the inside of the tent, but outside, thin snow blanketed the ground and the rainfly, and freezing rain continued to fall, though not as heavily as the night before. Unable to care about hiking, I tried to fall back asleep, stay inside my little cocoon of warmth. More than at any point on the trail, I never wanted to leave the tent. But after a couple hours of balking, we looked at the upcoming elevation profile. To camp below the snow line, we’d have to stop in the next 7 miles or after 20 miles. Feeling how I did and as it was already 10, we decided to do 7 miles.
As we descended, freezing rain and snow became just rain. It was light, but I still found myself getting soaked thanks to the horrid wet brush hanging over the trail, clawing at my legs with its rain slobber. The lower we got, the the thicker the brush. Berry bushes, baby trees, expired wildflower clumps, once benign scenery, became the the focus of all my frustrations with the weather. I began to really wish I had brought my rain pants. Fat droplets on the leaves seemed to flock to my leggings and trickle down into my boots, which quickly became sodden. Even with more layers, traveling almost entirely downhill, I was cold. I became fixated on making a fire. I was sure that with a fire, we could warm up, maybe even dry out some stuff.
With such a low mileage target, we found a campsite early, and after setting up my tarp as a lean to near a fire pit, we began to gather firewood and tinder. It took some doing to get it started in the soggy weather, but we managed to make some modest flames. Without any dry firewood, though, we couldn’t make it big enough to provide substantial warmth. After so much time, I had to give up and retreat to the tent.
The next day we woke to realize some rodent had chewed a hole, two inches wide, in the bathtub floor of the tent. We didn’t know what was more upsetting, the hole or the fact that the little thief manage to carry out a dozen cookies, over half of our stores. It only took a half hour to patch the hole, but there was no getting the cookies back.
That day we needed to make more miles. The rain and snow was intermittent. We occasionally saw blue through swirling layers of clouds. And, in the afternoon, a brief spot of sunshine passed over us. Once we got out of the snow, we were even able to dry our tent and sleeping bags in a 20 minute gap between clouds. Feeling encouraged, we hiked until dark, making 19 miles.
So it went. Each day putting on wet clothes, climbing up to about 6000 ft and trudging through snow, descending a few thousand feet and wading through wretched, wet leaves, making camp and relishing time spent in the tent. But each day the weather got better and my cold improved. And, if I force myself see a silver lining, we did have the trail almost all to ourselves which was cool. We were much slower than expected; it took five days to do the 71 miles we originally planned to do in 3. But as we neared Stevens Pass, concern about our pace was completely overshadowed by the allure of the indoors, and we decided to spend the night in the Mountaineers lodge near the slopes.
I didn’t take too many pictures this stretch because my hands were too cold, but here’s what I got.