Location: Stevens Pass
Length: ~75 miles, one way
Elevation: 16,000 feet (yeah, seriously)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to hike the nearly 75 mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail that connects Stevens Pass and Snoqualmie Pass – Section J. Over the years, I’ve been on hikes that follow segments, intersect segments, bypass segments, and traverse high above segments of this section of the PCT, but I had never actually made the commitment to trek along the whole thing. I finally decided to rectify that.
In preparation for my adventure, I did a lot of research. My biggest question was “How long should I plan to allow myself to get from Stevens to Snoqualmie?” Various trip reports pointed to anywhere from 10 days to some superhuman’s tale of tackling it in one long, ridiculous day. After consulting great resources like the Pacific Crest Trail Association, NWHikers.net, Erick the Black’s blog, and Halfmile’s PCT Trail Maps, I finally settled on 5 days figuring I could average 15 miles a day with ease.
I also decided to hike southbound from Stevens to Snoqualmie instead of the more traditional northbound way. Why? First, I knew that my exit time would be up in the air and, living in Seattle, calling for a pickup from Snoqualmie Pass would equal a shorter wait time. Second, I knew there would be open restaurants at Snoqualmie Pass that would deliver a cheeseburger and, most importantly, beer to my famished face. Third, elevation estimates showed that the gain is only 16,000 total feet going southbound as opposed to the 17,000 feet heading north. I mean, you’re heading south – it’s all downhill, right?
The plan was set in motion and my girlfriend, Tiff, was kind enough to volunteer to shuttle me to and from the trailheads. I locked in on a Wednesday to Sunday trip in the last week of August, keeping a close watch on the status of the many raging wildfires in the surrounding areas. I lucked out and none affected my path. Dates set, travel logistics taken care of, the last thing I needed to do was pack!
Herein lies the first of many lessons I learned on this trip.
Now I’ve been hiking many, many years. I also have been feeding myself for just about as long. I know what my body needs to keep functioning on the trail. I also know, as does Tiff, I don’t like to be hungry. We actually did some research on estimated calorie consumption and packing lighter on food (again, Erick the Black has a great post on his blog about this). I had packed about 7lbs of food for the 5 days based on past experience. I had a nice mix of meals and snacks, but was only portioning about 2000 calories per day. Hey, I’ve never been one to actually count calories or worry about my intake. I just eat when I’m hungry. Tiff, however, is of saner mind and loves data. After consulting some caloric calculators, she mentioned that I might not have enough intake to maintain my desired daily distance. Since I had never done this much distance on consecutive days (and also because I’m a smart guy and listen to my gal), I heeded her warning. Queue an extra few pounds of grub added to my bear bag. 10lbs of food for 5 days ended up being a bit overkill for me, especially since I wasn’t out there for 5 days. But more on that later.
With my food figured out, I proceeded to assemble the rest of my gear. Because I was going solo, I opted to leave the tent in the closet and pack my hammock and REI Minimalist Bivy instead. With the addition of my tent footprint to act as a tarp, I had a perfect shelter set up that didn’t weigh a ton. I’m not an ultralight packer in the least bit and will bring along extra weight in the name of creature comforts, but I do like to be somewhat mindful of what I’m carrying.
With my pack fully loaded, it came in at a gossamer 40lbs. This was a bit heavier than I was hoping since I was aiming for around 30lbs. I did have a few hefty items not accounted for in my aim: 4 cans of beer (3lbs), pistol with full magazine (~2.5lbs), camera (1lb), 3 extra pounds of food. Oh, that’s why I hit 40lbs!
August 26, 2015: Day 1
We left Seattle early Wednesday morning and headed north to Stevens Pass. We arrived around 9am and spent the next 15 minutes trying to find the trailhead. The PCT isn’t marked in the parking lot of the ski area and I finally just said “This looks like a trail and my GPS says it is so, let’s go with it.” I said my goodbyes and began my journey, destination Glacier Lake a little over 14 miles away.
I flitted up the trail, excited for the miles of adventure that lay ahead and hopeful that I was, in fact, on the right trail. 50 feet in, I met my confirmation.
I snapped a quick pic and continued on. The PCT starts in the Stevens Pass ski area. It was pretty cool to hike along slopes I’m used to barrelling down on my snowboard. Crossing Big Chief and into the Tye Mill area, I was surprised at how steep everything looked without snow. Also, all the tree runs I’m used to bombing looked quite treacherous without their protective blanket of white.
I quickly made my way through the forest and … HOLY $#¡+!!! Out of nowhere a giant explosion shook the hillside and echoed off the surrounding mountains. Despite the 40lbs on my back, I successfully jumped a good 100 feet up the trail. I looked around to see if I could spot smoke or dust or any other evidence of the blast but I saw nothing and the forest returned to silence. I resumed my ascent up the ski slope, eyeing the sleeping Tye Mill chairlift and thinking how [BOOM! I didn’t jump nearly as high this time] it sure would be nice if it were running and could carry me to the top. Instead I kept to the trail, switching back and [BOOM! Merely a blink] forth until I finally reached the ridgeline and saw the barren backside of Stevens Pass Ski Area.
The bombing continued on and so did I. From the ridge, the trail drops down the backside and crosses the last road until Snoqualmie Pass.
I quickly traversed the valley, entered the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and made my way to Lake Susan Jane where I had planned to take my first break. I arrived a bit before schedule and decided to continue on instead. This would prove to be an ongoing theme for this trip.
From Lake Susan Jane, the trail climbs up a ridge and plops you high above Lake Josephine. There’s an intersection with the Icicle Creek Trail #1551 and access to the lake just before the viewpoint. I took my first break at 11 am on a rock at the viewpoint, kicking my shoes off and chowing down on a ClifBar.
I spent 30 minutes relaxing before traipsing off again. From the Lake Josephine overlook, the trail heads up to a saddle before dropping down some narrow switchbacks above the Tunnel Creek valley. I trucked along, passing Mig Lake and then quickly dropping the mile down to Hope Lake.
Leaving Hope Lake, the trail makes a steep ascent gaining about 800 feet in less than a mile. I took another break in the shaded woods at the top of the climb. It was 1:30 and getting to be quite warm. Not a big deal except the trail loses the forest cover for open slopes for most of the way up to Trap Pass.
From Trap Pass, the trail switchbacks steeply down toward the junction to Surprise Lake and then climbs up to Glacier Lake. I ran into a doe and her two fawns, the latter of which gave me some puzzled looks before bounding down the steep and woodsy hillside.
I reached Glacier Lake at around 4:15pm and proceeded to look for a place to camp. The main site was already taken by a large group so I headed north along the shore and found a tree and a boulder that was prime hammock support. After setting up camp, I began my nightly ritual of filtering water for the next day, preparing dinner, and just relaxing and taking in the surrounding beauty. The lake was pretty quiet with the exception of the constant buzzing of yellow-jacket-like bees which didn’t go to sleep until the last light was extinguished from the sky.
Darkness fell and a hush settled over the lake basin. I attempted to crawl into my sleeping bag in my hammock and realized something wasn’t working quite right. Which brings me to lesson number two:
Now, I’ve used my hammock before but only with my sleeping bag. It’s comfortable and works great. However, I had not used it with my bivy sack. This combination presented some unique issues. Normally, my bivy is fantastic and acts as a nice compact “tent” that houses my Therma-Rest Neo-air, my sleeping bag, and myself in a cozy little waterproof burrito. Throw this combo into a nylon hammock and … well … I couldn’t get in! The material of the bivy paired with the material of the hammock created a nigh frictionless coupling that leading bearing manufacturers are now clamoring to patent. Each time I tried to slide into my sleeping bag, the whole bivy/bag/pad/me combo would slide off the hammock and dangle precariously over the soft heather below me. I tried unsuccessfully for about 10 minutes until finally giving up and slapping my bivy on the ground where it belonged. I climbed in quickly, zipped myself into a burrito and promptly fell asleep.
August 27, 2015: Day 2
I awoke at 6 am on day 2 and looked at my hammock smiling above me. Dammit. Sleeping on the ground didn’t annoy me in the least. Having to carry the weight of a hammock and straps I wasn’t planning on using for the remainder of the 60 miles I still needed to travel did. Lesson learned.
After making a breakfast of Mountain House Granola – this one is pretty damned delicious and I highly recommend it – I packed up camp and was on the trail by 7am. Today’s agenda included the climb up and over Pieper Pass, down past Deception Lakes, Deception Pass, and ultimately make camp at Deep Lake around 15.5 miles away.
The trail to Pieper Pass climbs out of Glacier Lake and enters a rocky basin before skirting Surprise Mountain and attaining the pass.
Once I reached the top of Pieper Pass, I whipped out my cell phone. There were rumors I might have reception up there and I wanted to check in with home. Unfortunately, the rumors did not hold true for me and my AT&T iPhone. Back in the bag it went and, after a short break, I headed down the trail. My eyes were soon greeted with some familiar friends. Through the trees I espied Mt. Hinman and Mt. Daniel away off in the distance. Further down the trail, the forest opened up and I was awarded unobstructed views of Hinman, Daniel, and Cathedral Rock to the south and Mt. Baring in the very distant north.
I spent the next mile splitting my time between watching the skinny, rocky trail and gaping at the ridiculously awesome views. This section of trail has some fairly narrow portions that I could not imagine leading a horse through. Maybe I don’t give horses much credit?
I dropped down to the Deception Lakes and arrived around breakfast time for the scattered campers dotting the shores. The Deception Lakes are gorgeous green alpine watering holes nestled in a forested basin.
Since I had places to be, I kept on at a blistering pace. Literally. I reached Deception Pass, another major intersection of trails, at 10:15 and sat down for a break. I had noticed some hot spots developing in a couple places on my feet and decided to check them out. Off came the shoes and off came the smartwool socks. I rarely get blisters, but I was wearing a new pair of trail runners. And now we hit lesson 3.
Yes, they were new shoes, but hear me out! I had put at least 10 miles on them a couple weeks before with no indication they were going to cause issues. What I didn’t count on was the fact that my perfectly fitting shoes weren’t going to fit perfectly the next day after putting 15 miles on them. How was I supposed to know my feet were going to swell just enough to start rubbing in annoying places?
I busted out my first-aid kit and addressed the giant blisters that had graced my peds. After a liberal application of moleskin and micropore tape, I was back in business. I kept my laces loose which helped minimize further injury.
Okay, back to the trail. From Deception Pass, the trail heads up toward Cathedral Pass but not before crossing the infamous “difficult ford” (point WA2439 if you’re following along on Halfmile’s PCT map). One of the runoff creeks from Mt. Daniel has carved out a boulder strewn gully, impeding trail travel before it continues down the hill and feeds into the Cle Elum River. On years where the runoff is substantial, this crossing can be impossible. Since this year was abysmally mild, I wasn’t worried about the flow levels.
After picking my way across the “difficult ford” I took a minute to rinse the sweat off my face in the frigid creek and wondered what it looks like when the runoff is rampant. I imagined a wall of water blasting through the narrow gully tossing boulders and debris down toward the valley below and was glad the creek was just a creek at the moment.
The temperatures were rising as the sun gained altitude which wasn’t all that great since I had a long uphill section to tackle. From the ford to Cathedral Pass is a little over 3 miles and all uphill. I made the unending slog under the blazing sun before finally reaching Cathedral Pass and familiar surroundings.
I’ve been to Cathedral Pass a couple times before – once whilst visiting Peggy’s Pond and once on the way to summiting Mt. Daniel. Things were looking pretty much the same. I was due for another break and this was a perfect area. Again, I tried my cell phone but couldn’t get reception, despite previous reports of cell service. While I was fiddling with my “no service” phone, I heard a voice from up the hill and saw a younger guy sitting on the rock above me. I was surprised to hear he had reception and he graciously allowed me to make a call to check in with home. He was on Sprint and I noticed it actually picked up 4G service at one point.
Anyway, I made a quick call home to update on my status and then hung out with the guy and chatted for a bit. His name was Cannon and he was out scouting for bear for the day. We talked about the surrounding area and just general niceties for a bit. It was great having a 15 minute conversation with another human; it can get a bit mental talking to the rocks and trees. I thanked Cannon for letting me use his phone and bade him farewell. Off to Deep Lake.
From Cathedral Pass, the PCT drops about 1300 feet down to Deep Lake and takes a leisurely 2 miles or so to do it. I’m not used to these long, mildly graded switchbacks, and being able to see my target like that really gave weight to the whole “so close and yet so far away” adage.
I reached Deep Lake, my planned camp for the night at 3:15 that afternoon. I made my way over the outlet and past the camps and took a break creekside. I had a decision to make: do I call it a day so early in the afternoon or rest up and push on? I already had a little over 15 miles on the books at that point, but there was a lot of daylight left. Of course I decided to push on.
I filtered water and took a quick siesta before departing Deep Lake at 4pm. Had I known what I was about to experience, I might have pitched camp at Deep Lake. Might have, but probably not.
I left Deep Lake with the plan of camping somewhere along the shores of Waptus Lake. I figured there would be some nice sites in another couple of miles along the banks I could relax in.
The trail drops down from Deep Lake and re-enters the woods. My map and GPS were a little off as there was a section of trail that seemed a bit newer. It was, as confirmed by a washout it bypasses. Anyway, I’m trying to make this part somewhat interesting, but really, it was the worst part of the entire trip. If you like thick forest with no water or views for miles upon miles, you’d love it. A few miles from Deep Lake, I kept looking from my map to my GPS to my surroundings and wondered where the hell the lake was. Another mile. No lake. I was getting a bit tired at this point and was now in zombie hiker mode, the only thing on my mind was brai… er, camp. The trail offered no respite. No lake, no view, no creeks, no campsites. Nothing but unending forest in all directions. If the sun hadn’t been shining through the canopy, I would have thought I’d stumbled into Mirkwood.
Nevertheless, I plodded on. My exhaustion was setting in hard as I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I kept looking at the map for indications of campsites but none were to be had. Finally, about 4 3/4 miles from Deep Lake, a creek AND A CAMPSITE appeared! I perked up until I got closer and, much to my dismay, realized it was already occupied by some other happy and rested-looking travelers.
The forced march continued. My feet were lead and the ground a magnet. Each step was a chore. And thus it continued for another mile and a half until I reached another camp. Sadly, this campsite was occupied by a previous tenant’s dirty socks and garbage from their last meal. Even in my deliriously tired state, I couldn’t bring myself to bivy there. On I went.
I pushed myself another mile before finally reaching the Waptus River. I looked down off the trail and saw a nice flat piece of riverbed that looked perfectly comfortable. At this point, a den of nettles would have sufficed.
It was 6:30 pm by the time I dropped my pack and set up camp in a daze. I had somehow made it 7 miles past my planned camp for the day for a total of 22 miles from Glacier Lake. I was beat physically and impressed that I had pushed myself that far on sheer willpower.
While I waited for my dinner to rehydrate, I took the opportunity to soak my feet in the icy waters of the Waptus River until they were numb. My Fremont IPA had been chilling in the river and tasted like angel tears. Refueled and relaxed, I tended to my nightly chores before crawling into my bivy. It was 9 pm at this point and sleep came easily.
I awoke at 3:04 am to the sound of rain falling on the tarp above me. I poked my head out, felt it was just a sprinkle, and rolled over and went back to sleep.
NW Forest Pass required