Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Nocona's Penultimate Day on the Trail

Nocona has finished her Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hike, and I'm nearly finished my volunteer job of transcribing her hiking journals. I really enjoyed the one I typed this morning, written the day before they finished their 2,650-mile hike from Mexico to Canada. It's a long entry, though, and typing it overflowed into my blogging time. Since I think it's a good read, I'll post it here as well as on her site at Trailjournals. Nocona's a 33-year-old woman who thru-hiked the PCT this year with her husband, Bald Eagle. Dan and I hope to be out there, doing the same thing, in 2006. Enjoy!



Location: Just Below Woody Pass

Miles Hiked Today: 20.2

I could not get to sleep last night. First, my bad left foot was aching terribly. Then, I got really hungry and had to get up and eat. When I finally laid back down to sleep, I was still wide awake when I heard the most terrible noise. Our windows were cracked, and not far away, I distinctly heard a terrible drawn-out scream. It sounded like a low-pitched woman's scream followed by several groans.

I froze, wide-eyed. Then, scrambled to sit up and look out the window. All was still again. I stared out and listened for a long time, but never heard anything else. Was it a cougar? Someone having a bad dream with their hotel windows open?

Needless to say it took a long time for me to get to sleep after that eerie noise. So, I woke up feeling grumpy and irritable.

Our ride was waiting in the semi-darkness in front of the store as planned. We big goodbye to the cozy Mazama community and hoped we wouldn't see it again for a long, long time.

Sunrise from on top of the mountains was awesome. The snow level was at 5,000 feet and, by the time we reached Hart's Pass, it was 4-6 inches deep. Pure white fluffy powder.

Admittedly, I was very nervous about hiking on the ridge. What would we find up there? I'd picked out a lower alternate route, but none of the others wanted to go down to the valley unless we were forced to retreat by deep snow, weather, or the inability to see the trail.

Climbing up out of Hart's Pass was simply amazing. It was the most lovely winter wonderland I've ever seen. Being on Katahdin in November of '98 was special, but here we had the same crystalline world but with mountains--high mountains--in every direction. Not to mention, we were headed into the backcountry and faced 40 remote miles. No, this was not comparable to climbing Katahdin in the snow.

As the snow got deeper, and as I began to peel off layers and the real work began, I started having serious doubts. We were moving at half our normal pace, but doing twice the work. The snow was fine, dry powder and akin to walking through a foot of loose fine beach sand. In places, our steps held, and I stepped up and down into them. But the footing was not firm. My knees began to ache and my legs grew fatigued--and we'd only come 2 miles. I told Eagle that I thought we should turn back and drop down into the valley and out of the snow.

"But K-Too and Dirty are ahead of us, and they'll be really worried if we don't show up later."

He was right, so we hiked on with plans to at least make it to Holman Pass, 10 miles away, where another trail would take us off the PCT ridge and into the valley.

I put my head down and hiked. When I paused and looked up, the clouds had sunk into the valley, and a panorama of high peaks shown white as far as I could see above the cloud layer.

Suddenly, a sun beam reached down and shown upon the PCT and the snowy white world. I have to say, despite all my worries and concerns about our chances of making it to the border, the beauty of the scene took my breath away. The snow glittered as if a billion diamonds carpeted the ground. Dark purple clouds backed the jagged North Cascades ... the there we were walking on top of the mountains. I felt suddenly incredibly lucky.

We saw things today that few thru-hikers, or anyone else for that matter, ever see on the PCT. The clouds drifting through the valley and the sun played off each other throughout the day. I felt blessed to be there to see it, yet I still felt on edge. Even though we had plenty of extra food, a good map, decent gear and a forecast for 2 days of clear weather, I felt nervous. Native Texans don't know snow. I eased my mind by remembering that K-Too grew up in upstate New York and had lived in northern Illinois and western Massachusetts. He knew snow. He'd tell us if it was unsafe.

At 11 a.m., we caught up to Dirty and K-Too. They seemed relaxed and content to keep moving.

Soon after, we all reached Windy Pass where there was a privately owned yurt (like a ski cabin). The yurt was hidden down a side trail. K-Too and Dirty went down to look at it, but I wanted to keep moving. I thought we'd never make the planned 20 miles.

Then, my mind was put at ease. We climbed through deep snow up to a ridge (climbing in snown is really difficult, but descending is actually easier than on dirt) (I was the only one with high gaiters: the others had ankle gaiters or nothing). On the other side of this ridge, we could see a long way ahead ... and it was much, much lighter! I was so happy and relieved.

Bald Eagle didn't care--he was absolutely loving hiking through the snow. It didn't seem to make his legs more tired.

Finally, we were moving along at a good pace. Coyote tracks were laid in front of us for 3 miles of trail. It appeared that 3 of them had walked the PCT last night. Deer, rabbit, and bobcat tracks were among those that I could identify in the snow. Again, this aspect of being out in the snow--the ability to see exactly where and roughly when animals passed by--it my favorite part of snow travel.

I only wished we had snow shoes!

Nearly 8 miles of trail were completely snow-free on either side of Holman Pass. The snowline was higher here, or there simply hadn't been as much precipitation in this area. I hoped it would continue that way.

The only other fresh hiker tracks we saw in this section were at the 4-trail-junction on Holman Pass. They were a day old and just passing over and headed back into the western river valley. No one had been hiking the PCT in the last few days.

Our next job was to climb back up to 6,700 feet to the ridge where we'd look for a campsite.

We topped out at Rock Pass. The weather was looking bad all of a sudden. This wasn't supposed to happen. Dark blue clouds rode low on our horizon, and the wind picked up and began to blast our eyes and face with pellets of ice. I cinched down my hood and bent my head low so that I could only see straight down.

Eagle stayed with me for the descent off the pass into a huge cirque. The snow had collected here. Many soccer-ball-sized snowballs had rolled off the slope, which showed how avalanche-prone this bowl was in the winter. I thought, no wonder there are no trees growing here. This is not a place you could safely hike or ski in the midst of winter.

Remarkably, we never had a second of doubt about the location of the PCT. It stood out, even in two-foot-deep drifts as a smooth ribbon of meandering snow amongst bumpier snow. This was the main reason we did not consider bailing off the ridge into the Pasayten River valley.

I spent a tremendous amount of energy in the last five miles. The snow was deep and had melted a bit from the warm sun of earlier in the day. The trail climbed a thousand feet up to Woody Pass. It was getting dark, and I was hoping that Dirty and K-Too would appear around a bend before we had to don headlamps.

Sure enough! We found them setting up camp in a small flat just below the pass. I was very relieved that the day was over.

K-Too helped us kick out a square in the snow where we put up our tent. THe cold was settling on us quickly.

Eagle sat out in the snow cooking dinner. I felt sorry for him. I also felt bad for K-Too and Dirty, who both have single-wall tarp tents.

The good news is that we DID hike 20 MILES! And we only have 4 miles to the high point of Washington. All we have to do is walk those 4 miles in snow--if we can make it to that 7,120-foot summit, we should be home free to the border.

The bad news is that it has begun to snow, and the sky is bruised and ugly-looking. What happened to our forecast?

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