What a Difference a Week Makes

It's come down to approach trails, snow levels, and food

7 little days. That's how long we have left at home before we grab our packs, lock the front door (for the last time in its current location), and head out on the first leg of this Pacific Crest Trail adventure of ours. Only a week ago we had a miles long to-do list, a pretty normal day-to-day existence, and space on our calendar to make plans with friends. How things have changed. Our decision to go forward with the hike (and a concurrent house remodel) has already so altered our lives in the past 3 months. And yet. It seems impossible to envision a new (albeit temporary) life that begins just one short week from now.

 Bathroom with a view? Or remodel in progress. 

Bathroom with a view? Or remodel in progress. 

The movers came last Friday and took nearly everything from the house. Although we're both still working our usual schedules we have been sleeping on an air mattress in the guest room (our bedroom and bathroom have already been demo-ed in the remodel) and living out of suitcases. Our eating habits have reverted to grad-student level, since we no longer have an oven and kept only a few key kitchen items out of the moving boxes. If it can be made with one small pot, a non-stick pan, and/or a colander and doesn't require spices beyond salt and pepper, put it on the menu. There are no serving bowls, and all meals must be eaten with a spoon or chopsticks. Work has been more hectic than usual for both of us, probably because we are about to leave. Long days and late nights mean we haven't seen much of each other (awake, that is) and all remaining pre-trip tasks have to be squeezed into very limited free time. Amazingly, nearly all of the items on our over-sized task list have been completed. We are both strangely calm about the current situation. Perhaps because in just one more week we will be spending practically every minute of every day together, and soon after that we'll be eating like royalty (trail food always tastes delicious).

Ross Lake, North Cascades NP, Hwy 20, and the PCT

As most of our commitments near home wrap up, we are starting to focus more attention on the trip. Southbound PCT hikers must determine where to start, and whether to make a continuous hike of the entire trail. It is a felony to enter the US from Canada on the PCT (or at any other unmanned point along our border), so legally hiking the full PCT SOBO involves backtracking and "bonus miles". Some hikers ditch the northernmost portion of the PCT, start at a point with road access, and head south to Mexico from there. We decided early on to hike from border to border, and started to investigate the trails and roads of far northern WA. The most common start point for SOBO hikers is Harts Pass, a small campground right on the PCT ~30 miles from Canada. Some head north to tag Monument 78 at the border before backtracking, while others skip those 30 trail miles and start southbound directly from Harts Pass. Looking at a map, we found that two hiking trails from the west join the PCT much closer to Canada, and both are accessible from Ross Lake in the North Cascades National Recreation Area. The north arm of the popular Devil's Dome loop trail heads east from the middle of Ross Lake to join the PCT at Holman Pass, ~19 miles from Canada. Castle Pass on the PCT, only ~4 miles to the border, is accessible via the Lightening Creek & Three Fools trails from the northern end of Ross Lake. Either of these routes can be reached via water taxi from the south end of Ross Lake at Hwy 20, or by walking even more bonus miles along the east bank trail that runs nearly the full length of this long, dammed lake. An entirely different option is to commit to a "continuous line of footprints" from border to border, without the requirement to follow the actual PCT. We read the account of recent SOBO hikers who substituted a hike to Monument 72 on the east shore of Ross Lake for the northernmost portion of the PCT. From the border, they hiked south on lower elevation trails through North Cascades National Park and eventually joined the PCT proper well south of Hwy 20.

With so many options, we focused on a few basic factors:

  • We are depending on the generosity of Andrew's family members to drive us to our start point from the Seattle area 
  • We hate backtracking
  • There will likely be plenty of snow on our start date in early July
  • Hiking the entire PCT holds stronger allure for us than simply hiking from one border to another by any other route
  • We have more backpacking experience than many 
  • We are not as cost-sensitive as some

Plan A. Harts Pass campground was quickly eliminated from the running due to its 30-mile backtrack, and the fact that it is 65 miles further (one way) from Seattle. Not to mention that the final 20 of these miles is on a narrow, winding dirt road that has been described as "the state's most terrifying road" and is the subject of many hilarious videos on YouTube. We've been passengers on Hart's Pass road without issue, but it didn't seem fair to ask Andrew's mom (or siblings) to drive it both ways if a reasonable alternative exists. If that weren't enough, a rockslide last season closed the road ~10 miles short of the campground and it is not expected to be re-opened until mid-summer. Even if we could hike from the closure point that adds another 10 bonus miles. In summary, Harts Pass is a no-go.

Plan B. On a map, the Lightening Creek / Three Fools approach to Castle Pass seems perfect. It joins the PCT just 4 miles from the border, providing the option to drop packs and day-hike to the border for a speedy and short backtrack before we head south for good. The water taxi fare to this trailhead is $150, a bit steep but worth it to minimize both bonus miles and the length of our backtrack. Ross Lake is right on Hwy 20 (the main road through the North Cascades) and easily reached from the Seattle area. The PCTA website notes that the Lightening Creek trail isn't well maintained but still lists it as a potential starting point. We didn't find much more information online about this trail and figured that with our backpacking experience, we'd probably be fine for ~20 miles of just about anything. The decision was made, and we laid out an itinerary for our hike based on this route. A few weeks later we saw a social media post highlighting the Lightening Creek trail as one of WA's most forgotten "abandoned trails," unmaintained for several years and nearly impassable. This triggered more in-depth googling, and we uncovered a detailed trip report of a mid-Sept 2012 hike along the route. It described several YSYD (you slip, you die) sections prior to reaching the Pasayten wilderness, then went on:

...once you pass this invisible boundary line the nightmare begins. There are literally thousands of deadfall and blowdowns covering the trail. At one point for probably 30 yards or so I simply catwalked along fallen tree trunks while my feet never once touched the ground! I am not exaggerating. Then when the trail finally drops down to creek level, you have to deal with the thickets of slide alder. This section has become so overgrown its like you’re a rock star without bodyguards who’s trying to walk through a mob of screaming fans groping you from all sides...

Hmmm. That was a fit & seasoned weekend hiker, in September, 4 years ago. We're heading out in early July with plenty of snow and likely much heavier packs. Our food has to last us all the way to the border, then south along the PCT as far as Rainy Pass at Hwy 20. Suddenly those 20 "short" miles between Ross Lake and Castle Pass looked much less appealing.

On to Plan C. It still utilizes the Ross Lake water taxi, but with a slightly cheaper $95 fare to Devil's Junction. We'll follow the Deception Pass trail past Devil's Dome to reach the PCT at Holman Pass. This section is part of the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), a national scenic trail, and is regularly maintained. In early season before the maintenance crews come through there will likely be mudslides and downed trees, but only those from a single winter. It does mean a much longer backtrack, and eliminates the possibility of a day-hike to the border and return. But we hiked from Devil's Junction to Holman Pass on a backpacking trip last summer, so the terrain will be somewhat familiar, even if covered by snow. There are definitely a few YSYD sections, but nothing we haven't already seen. We made the decision to use Plan C a few weeks ago, and updated our itinerary to reflect the extra miles. We've made fairly conservative mileage estimates for the early days of our trip, since we don't know exactly what to expect in terms of snow and trail conditions.

 Snow depths along the PCT in northern WA - June 13, 2016

Snow depths along the PCT in northern WA - June 13, 2016

 Snow depths along the PCT in northern WA - June 23, 2016

Snow depths along the PCT in northern WA - June 23, 2016

Speaking of snow. SOBO PCT hikers typically start in late June or early July, when there is still plenty of snow at higher elevations in the Cascades. Conventional wisdom holds that SOBO thru-hikers shouldn't embark until the snow sensor at Harts Pass reads 0" - this does not mean that the trail is snow-free, but it should be passable to those with adequate traction gear and experience. Of course, with each passing week more snow melts so a later start means easier walking and higher mileage days. On the other hand, a later start also means less time to get through the Sierra before snow starts falling in late September or early October. We eagerly watched (online) as the snow level at Harts Pass dropped from 80" in early May to 43" by the end of the month, then the sensor stopped functioning. We started to keep our eye on an interactive NOAA map monitoring snow depth along the entire trail. Our start date is more or less fixed, and we are carrying sufficient gear for any conditions that might be encountered from mid-June onward. However, our progress will be much faster and easier the less snow-covered trail we encounter, and this affects our plans to meet up with Andrew's family at our first resupply stop at Hwy 20. The snow is melting fast and it seems reasonably likely that we will hike this first section more quickly than our itinerary suggests. We go back and forth about how this affects the amount of food we'll carry to start. In the end, we will probably carry the full 9 days' worth of food from our revised plan. It is easier to arrive at our meeting point a day or more early and hitch a ride to somewhere with cell service to contact his family, rather than end up a day or more later than planned and cause needless worry and waiting for those who are so generous with their time to support our hike. 

While it is addicting to scan trail conditions and snow maps, the reality is that we have no way of more accurately predicting in advance our pace for this first section of bonus miles, then south on the PCT between Monument 78 and Rainy Pass. We will either reach Hwy 20 with extra weight in the form of uneaten food, or we will ration our food to last however long it takes to get there. We'll find out soon enough just what kind of mileage is realistic. How soon? About a week.