Stevens Pass to Waptus River Bridge (36.3 PCT miles + 0.4 bonus miles due to a wrong turn)
It seemed a little surreal to start back on the PCT hiking up a ski slope in the blazing (for WA) sun, but that is how it's done headed south from Stevens Pass. It is pretty amusing to open the Halfmile PCT app and see a landmark listed as "ski lift." As we reached the top of the chair lift that runs up from the back side of the resort, we realized that we could see the Stevens Pass XC ski trails. This past winter, we had skied those very trails with my family in very different weather than today. Remembering that outing and crossing the same path on a different journey brought a wave of nostalgia. We continued down the trail, crossed out of the ski resort, and headed back into wilderness, this time the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
We passed a few marshy starter lakes, and had our first view of one of the real gems of the Cascades as we hiked above sapphire blue Josephine Lake. The surroundings became more alpine, with a noticeable lack of glacial streams. We were headed towards Trap Pass but with our late afternoon start wouldn't make it there tonight. We were surprised to run into a day hiker in the late evening, what seemed like a long distance from a trailhead. It turns out she had been to Trap Pass from a side trail that comes from Hwy 2 and would be back at her car before dark. Not long after we passed her, we came to our campsite, a nice little shelf with a small creek and great views overlooking the drainage of Trapper Creek.
Day 16 started clear and sunny. We had a leisurely start and saw our first hiker just 5 minutes after we left our campsite. After climbing Trap Pass for a sweet view of turquoise Trap Lake in its rocky cirque far below, we descended towards Thunder and Surprise mountains. Suddenly we were in a stark granite basin reminiscent of the Sierra. The old Cascade Crest Trail heads straight over the obvious saddle of Surprise Gap per our map, but the PCT takes a hard right turn and meanders up and over Piper Pass instead. The distinction was clearly marked with a double row of rocks outlining the new trail, a trail sign, and a large cairn. For good measure, a sign in the direction of Surprise Gap nicely stated "trail abandoned". As we started up through out talus switchbacks, Cheri called out "Who is that?" I scanned the trail for people, didn't see anyone, and was about to say so. Then I looked straight ahead and through the trees saw the solitary snow-draped majestic mountain she was referring to. "That's Glacier Peak- we just couldn't see it before," I said. I can safely say that we lost several minutes gazing at Glacier Peak shining bright white against a cloudless blue sky over another gem, deep blue Glacier Lake. Every other switchback we got a different view of this stunning pair as we climbed up to Piper Pass. We sat there and enjoyed the last of the delicious Whidbey Island farmers' market carrots that my mum generously brought us at Stevens.
We saw a handful of northbound section hikers, and a few weekend trippers. Two hikers shared their experiences with a creek crossing further south labeled "potentially difficult ford" on the map, and it was good to know we wouldn't have to take the longer detour/alt route. The day only got hotter as we continued a long, often exposed, descending traverse towards this next obstacle. We found the info had been accurate - it was a fast moving stream with a steep rocky drop, wide channel, and three sections of water. Essentially we just needed to pick our footing well, and fortunately the final and most tricky section had some logs across it. We took a break on the far side to enjoy a rare fresh lunch thanks to treats my sis sent to Stevens - tortillas with Tillamook cheddar cheese and fresh kale! We supplemented with hummus & olives from our own supply and it was delicious. As we sat there we noticed the sky was completely clouded over, and was looking increasing grey in the direction we were headed. As we started the long climb up to Cathedral Rock a light rain fell, soon followed by lightening, thunder, and periods of pounding rain. On the plus side, we did get to try our Silver Shadow trekking umbrellas. They are a game changer in keeping us & our packs dry as we hike, though we still need to work out some kinks in how best to attach them to our packs and how to navigate nearby vegetation. WA will no doubt give us more opportunities to figure it out.
We passed several weekend backpackers on the stunning but chilly climb to the base of Cathedral Rock, then continued over its shoulder to a small campsite and trail junction, then somehow took the wrong trail and started descending down into the wrong valley. We figured it out within 10 minutes, but that combined with the heat of the morning and the current foul weather was enough to lower our morale, especially on a day we had hoped to do 23-26 miles and were already behind target. We regrouped at the trail jct, made the final climb to the correct point of descent, and stopped for a little break and some calories to magically lift our spirits. The spectacular views of azure Deep Lake far below and the dramatic peaks above didn't hurt. We revised our plan to aim for the 23-ish goal, knowing we would probably be pushing dark when we arrived at our campsite. Fortunately the last several miles were downhill, though as we left the outlet of Deep Lake for the final push, lightening flashed and thunder rumbled overhead. We pulled out the umbrellas again and they did the trick of keeping our upper halves dry. Unfortunately, a mile of pushing through wet overgrown vegetation soaked us to the bone from the waist down. We arrived at our campsite at dusk, but the rain had stopped and there were no mosquitos, so a pretty good result overall. The site was tiny and there was already a tent set up, but as we recognized the trappings of a thru-hiker we found a flattish area and started pitching our own shelter for the night. He called out a groggy hello and we tried to be quiet as we cooked dinner and ate, once again, like Argentinians.
Day 17 was to be another high mileage day with a goal of maximizing our town time in Snoqualmie Pass, so we resolved to be on-trail before 7am. In the morning we met our neighbor "Lord Vader," another completer. He thru-hiked last year but missed the section from White Pass to Stehekin. He was quite chatty but had good info about trail conditions, an alternate for the washed-out bridge ahead, and told us to check out the Aardvark food truck when we arrived at Snoqualmie Pass. We pulled ourselves away from the camaraderie and hit the trail by 6:55am under grey skies but no rain. With recent trail maintenance and easy terrain, we made good progress and soon reached the bridge over Waptus Creek, nearly halfway through the current segment.