It was just a short hike in August, but it accomplished a big goal for a couple of hikers: John and John walked the three-mile gap they needed to complete their 507.9-mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail across Washington state.
I did more than 200 miles on the PCT in Washington with John during the past three years, including a long hike from White Pass to the Columbia River and Oregon. I walked onto the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks, OR, on September 5, 2014.
I hiked from Hart’s Pass to the Canadian border in September 1973. The incident that stands out from that solitary hike through the Pasayten Wilderness is being in my tent while deer licked the outside of it — perhaps for salt or food I had spilled on it.
My obsession with the PCT started in either 1971 or 1972, and you could build a book on tracing what was going on in my life as I filled in portions of the trail year after year. Maybe I could call it “Wilder.” Or maybe “Mild” would be a better since I don’t think I can compete with Cheryl Strayed’s behavior as she told it in her book that has brought hordes to the PCT.
Much of my early hiking on the trail was with my sister or my friend Jeff. Mary Jo and her husband, Don, accompanied me on a couple hikes in Central Washington. Mary Jo was also with me from Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway south to Cloudy Pass and around Glacier Peak. I remember a bear standing up out of a berry patch along the trail and having a very close face-to-face with him before he ran off. The most amazing moonrise I have ever seen came over a lake on the approach trail from Holden just off Lake Chelan.
Most of my hikes with Jeff on the PCT were in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, perhaps the most beautiful and remote section of the trail in Washington. Jeff and I were in our 20s, played rugby and carried more weight in our packs than I could probably lift now. I remember baguettes, bottles of wine, salamis and cheese. I also remember this Ohioan’s first dunk in a glacial stream and rushing out of the frigid water into a pile of fallen branches. I still have the scar from the weird infection that followed. And somewhere in the Goat Rocks came my introduction to huckleberries, another obsession.
Kathy and I hiked the trail mostly in the Central Washington area, including one memorable trip when we found someone’s abandoned log raft and poled across a lake. Kathy reminds me of watching a rock avalanche across a valley and being glad we weren’t over there. We hiked with Max, her then our Llasa Apso, who loved to roll in snow banks and would sit down on the trail and refuse to move when tired.
Then we hiked with Jake, and Kathy remembers father and son skinny-dipping in a lake and a rainy hike where they stayed in the tent while I did all the cooking and served them.
The vistas, the memories, the completed miles. Almost makes me want to do it over.
“Behold, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.” — 1 Samuel 26:16
Given that GPS devices are becoming more and more common in cars, on bikes and in phones, many people can glance at a gizmo and know where they are. They may not be where they want to be, but are they lost?
That question popped into my mind while hiking and climbing in the Glacier Peak Wilderness area this past week. I knew long ago that someday I would have to do this climb – it just had my name on it.
So on Monday I started the drive over to Lake Wenatchee to find the trail to Mount Saul, a 7,300-foot mountain southeast of Glacier Peak. I had read several reports on the climb, had several maps and borrowed a GPS device from John, my often-hiking companion. He couldn’t go, others were busy and I went alone (not recommended).
The trail reports said to drive to White River Falls campground, but washouts had closed the road two miles short of it. So that added four more miles of hiking there and back. Not a 16-mile trek, but now a 20 mile trip.
Hiking on the road was easy, and the trail after the falls campground alternated between pleasant forest hiking and head-high brush. I camped under an immense cedar tree.
I loved the company of the huge tree but found the next morning that if I had hiked 10 minutes more there was a campsite along Indian Creek where the trail crosses it on a sturdy bridge. Good water there, and while I was filling my containers, a man and his son came by. Lots of good info from the dad, who said he had been up to Airplane Lake 30 or 35 times, starting when he was 13.
The lake is on the way up to Mount Saul and getting to it was the part of the trip that concerned me the most. One climbing report said the trail should be in the Outdoor Museum of Horrors.
Another report said to follow the outlet stream up to it. Dad Fisherman said that would be a bad idea as the stream comes over a cliff at the lake. Look for a nice campsite along the Indian Creek trail, he said. About 50 feet before that spot, look for a faint trail off to the right. If you see a sign that says “No Trail” about 100 feet into the woods, you’ve found the trail (not recommended). The sign actually says “Marking routes is prohibited.”
Stay to the right of the stream, Dad said, and then you will have to bear left or you will end up “right there” he said and pointed to a place on the map that would be right where I figured I needed to be to get up on the northeast ridge that leads up to the summit of Mount Saul.
Found the trail and the campsite, 4,300 feet below the summit. Decided to stay there and take only my day pack on the up and back the next day.
I spent the night either being excited about summit day or thinking this was the stupidest thing I had ever done (right up there). But I figured this hike would not get easier with the passing years.
So I chose Mount Saul over more hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail (in Oregon). The PCT has become too crowded for the outdoor experience I enjoy — solitude, quiet, introspection, brooding like King Saul would have done (not recommended). The PCT has been a great obsession for me since 1971 when I arrived in the Pacific Northwest, but you can expect to meet 30 or more hikers a day on it now. Nice trail though. As Neil, another hiking companion, said recently, “It’s so well maintained you expect guard rails.
Not so on the Airplane Lake trail. “Faint” is an exaggeration. Once in a while there is a slight depression in the soil or a narrow opening through the trees and brush. But it is hard to follow, goes straight up, has logs across it and loose stone underfoot. I did make it past the lake and headed up to where I thought I could get on the northeast ridge. Nope. A stone wall here, a stone wall there, here a cliff, there a cliff.
Back down and over to the lake. Lunch and deciding that I would tell people this was really a hike to beautiful Airplane Lake and I had never heard of some mountain named after a loser king in the Old Testament. As I was heading back down at noon, I noticed a faint, faint opening in some weeds. Could that lead to the ridge? It did. There were cliffs, but also ways around them.
I think one of the most exhilarating things in life is to feel the breeze in your face as you come over a mountain pass after a long climb. And the wind at the top of the ridge made me jump for joy – until I almost fell into the White River drainage. So long, Indian Creek valley and Airplane Lake, I’m off to see the king.
A far cry, however, from a yellow brick road. Easier to follow though. Lots of rocks to climb over, a couple of snowfields and another 2,000 feet of elevation.
At 3:15, I was at the summit, crawled around on the rocks up there, found and signed the register and marveled at the drop-off on the other side of the mountain. One guide says 1,300 feet of exposure. I didn’t take time to measure.
At 4 p.m. when I left the summit I knew I had to hurry to get back to camp before dark. I thought the third approach to the summit looked easier than going down the northeast ridge. I find going down harder than climbing up. Probably has something to do with three knee surgeries (not recommended). The third way takes you to the opposite side of the lake. More rock slides and snowfields, but then some meadows and what appeared to be less steep ground.
Up to a certain point, that is. Or down to it. The rock slides and snowfields went OK despite a collapsed snow bridge that spilled me into ice water. Then came more picking my way through trees, brush and boulders.
Down, down, down to the lake by 6, two or three hours more to the campsite. Will he make it, by Race to the Outhouse (dyslexia is a terrible thing).
No, he will not. Or at least not safely. I was on the Airplane Lake trail for one brief, shining moment and then off to the left of it. I knew where I was because of the GPS. I was not lost, and I figured if I just kept going down I would cross the Indian Creek trail, turn right and arrive in camp as the sun goes down.
Or the moon comes up, which it did. That helped some, but not going back and finding the Airplane Lake trail was erring exceedingly. Despite the deadfall on the trail, the brush and the steep pitch, it makes a steady drop into the Indian Creek drainage. I paralleled that path but stumbled through the thickest of thickets of vine maple and young alder, fell over rocks, skirted around cliffs, turned my body into a bruised and bloody mess, drank all my water, scooted on my butt and lost the seat of my pants, my water bottle, utility knife and hat. Even though I don’t remember the butt-scoot boogey being taught in the Portland Mazamas mountaineering course I took in 1971, I recommend it. How far can you fall when you are already on the ground?
Far enough to scare the pants (or what’s left of them) off you. I went over a 10-foot drop but grabbed hold of a tree branch and lowered myself down after the bark claimed some skin off my arm.
“Then Saul fell at once full length upon the ground, filled with fear . . .and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night.” — 1 Samuel 27:20
It may have been the longest descent in mountaineering history – certainly in my mountaineering history, which now draws to a close. I did make it back to the Indian Creek trail, back to fresh water and back to my cozy little tent, but long, long after dark (not recommended). Fifteen miles that day. So much for a 20-mile, four-day. slowpoke trip. More like 33.
“And Saul lifted up his voice and wept.” — 1 Samuel 24:16
OK, I didn’t weep. But I did thank Brooke for flexibility gained in her Pilates classes and Matt for the strength gained in training with him. And John for the GPS and for letting me push wheelbarrows of firewood uphill last week at his home in the Methow Valley (recommended for rugby forwards). My body did things I didn’t think it was capable of any more. Surprised and thankful for that.
Mostly I was exceedingly glad this had not turned out to be Mount Gilboa. And glad my name isn’t Everest.
But thanks to the GPS, I was never lost, just misplaced.