PCT: Washington is too snowy

Things didn’t go quite as planned in Washington. I started my PCT hike at the Oregon/Washington border thinking I would start hiking north and that by the time I got further up the snow in the northern reaches of the state would have melted. Turns out, there was also a fair amount of snow down south too.

I was able to take public transit from downtown Portland out to Cascade Locks, where I hit the grocery store to stock up on food for the next couple of days. I initially thought I might stay the night at the campground in town, but around 330 I was set to go, so I decided to head out. The trail goes over Bridge of the Gods which spans the Columbia River, and the first handful of miles involved walking through the rainforest-like environment of the gorge. I walked in 6 miles that evening and set up camp.

The next couple of days were easy, breezy hiking and I was internally applauding myself for this genius idea of avoiding snow by starting at the southern end of the state. I had amazing views of Mount Hood, Mount Adams, Mount St Helens and Rainier. The weather was beautiful, and I saw a handful of day hikers each day but never any other thru hikers. It was cool to feel like I was out there alone at first, but by the third night I was feeling a little lonely.

The next day was when I ran into my first thru hiker. It was also when I ran into the snow. As if on cue, the snow started at 4000 feet elevation and the boundary of the Indian Heaven Wilderness, and it didn’t stop for 18 miles. The hiker I ran into – a guy from Georgia whose trail name is Bunny – was backtracking in a steep, narrow section of trail because he realized his phone and fallen out of his pocket. Luckily he found it, but we both quickly realized how screwed one would be without their phone in the snow. The snow was easily 6 or more feet deep for most of the wilderness section, and the forest was so thick it was impossible to tell if you were on the trail without using your phone to look at the app.

“The app” is FarOut – which allows you to pre download maps for thru hikes that include important way points like water sources, camping and towns info where you can resupply. Lizzy and I used it in 2018 when we hiked the Colorado Trail and it makes logistics so much easier. You can also read recent comment by other hikers to know if water information is still accurate or what places in a certain town are hiker friendly & offer amenities like shower & laundry.

To navigate the 18 miles of snow, we were forced to check the app every so often to make sure we were still near the trail, since the trail was buried. I kept trying to look for a trail corridor, and sometimes this worked for a bit, but eventually the corridor would disappear and I would be totally lost again and have to pull out my phone.

At the end of the first day it kind of felt like a fun adventure, since I’d only spent about 5 or 6 miles in the snow, had found a thru hiker buddy and camp was at a beautiful snow covered lake that I imagine is crawling with backpackers in the summer – but we had it to ourselves. The next day however, my mentality went downhill, as I grew more and more frustrated with the slow hiking and continuous navigating. I think the worst part about it was side hilling in the snow for miles on end. Every contour – and there were a lot – meant having to side hill. My tendons were starting to flare due to the painstaking angled steps I had to take, and we hiked about six full hours in snow before it all of a sudden disappeared. We walked out of the forest into a clearing with a beautiful view of Mount Adams, and I sighed a huge sigh of relief thinking we were done with the snow. Well, as soon as we entered the forest again the snow started up again, not as endless as before and thankfully for the most part it was more flat, but it was still demoralizing. Finally the snow let up for good for the day as we got to camp, and I was physically and mentally exhausted.

I had pretty much made up my mind by that point that there was no way I was going to keep heading north. Hiking in the snow took almost twice as long as walking on trail, my body was sore and my brain hurt from having to pay attention to every single step I took. At first I was giving myself a hard time about wanting to quit, but I quickly rationalized that this kind of hiking was not what I came out here to do. Plus, I knew that the further north I went, the trail was only going to get higher, steeper and have more snow – meaning it was going to be dangerous to try hiking in those conditions.

The next day we walked about 5 miles to the road that led down into Trout Lake, the first resupply town. We called up a Trail Angel (someone who helps out they hikers) whose number was posted in the app and he happily came to pick us up to bring us to town. His name was Gerry & he was a retired Forest Service employee. On our way down into town a section hiker who he’d met the year before called him to ask about trail conditions going north from Trout Lake. Bunny and I gave her the intel from the section we had just done and she said “okay sounds like I won’t be going until August!” Which pretty much cemented my decision to bail – the Washington section of trail won’t really be enjoyable until then. But regardless I had completed my first 80 miles of the PCT!

Once in Trout Lake, the first stop of course was breakfast at the cafe. Afterwards, I was preparing to do laundry & take a shower at the general store when Gerry came by and said he was heading to Hood River if I wanted a ride. I initially had planned on staying the night in Trout Lake, but when Gerry offered the ride, I decided to bounce. I said bye to Bunny, who was going to wait for some trail friends from the CDT to catch up and see about continuing north with a group.

I took public transit back to Portland (and met some characters along the way), where I spent the night with friends of Pete’s. They were awesome to welcome me in when I was sweaty & smelly and badly needed a shower and to do laundry. I decided the next morning to head back up to Seattle, since my Aunt Maggie offered me to stay with her while I came up with a new plan. After a full 24 hours of being in transit – all 24 of which I spent stressing about what the hecky to do next – I was able to finally relax when I got to Maggie’s house.

I figured I had a couple options: 1) I could wait for the snow to melt in Washington. Pete and I had planned to meet up at the end of July, but he offered to come out early and we could do some adventuring in the meantime. The problem with this was, I had a feeling it would take a while for the snow to melt and I really wanted to just be out hiking. 2) I could try hiking south through Oregon and come back to finish Washington later. After reading through reports from the early northbound (NOBO) hikers, Oregon sounded pretty snowy too, but at least there would likely be tracks from those hikers and I would have to do less navigating. 3) I could head south to California for the time being to hike, since I heard from a friend who is hiking the PCT north that it was essentially snow free. This would entail doing a “double south” since I’d hike south for about a month before heading back up to Washington to hike south from the Canadian border so I don’t miss the weather window to hike there.

Ultimately I went with the third choice. After weighing my options about where exactly to start (start south and hike north or vice versa), I settled on flying into Medford, Oregon to hike south from Ashland, not too far from the California border. As a bonus, I remembered I had a friend from the ice who lives in Ashland – Lauren – and I ended up staying with her and her partner for the night before starting which was fun. I set off again on Friday July 1, with 80 miles under my belt. I got a text from Bunny yesterday saying he & his friends decided to also bail on Washington and come down to California too. From what I’ve seen on the Facebook groups, few people have started their hikes in Washington due to the snow, and are still waiting out the snow. I’m pretty happy with my decision.

I am starting south through what is called the NOBO bubble – through the continuous stream of northbound PCT hikers making their way up from Mexico. In stark contrast to meeting only 1 other thru hiker in Washington, I have consistently been seeing about 15-20 NOBOs a day here. Some started as early as March, and had a hell of a time going through snow in the Sierras, and others started as late as May. They’re the ones crushing huge miles and have caught up to the March hikers.

I have also met a handful of other SOBO hikers, which I honestly wasn’t sure I would. It seemed from the Facebook groups people were deciding to either wait out the snow in Washington, or hike north from Ashland and do a “flip flop” returning to Ashland after reaching the Canadian border to hike south. So far I’ve met a 60 something year old woman named Cherry (I believe this is just her actual name, not a trail name) who hiked the PCT once before going northbound, and decided she wanted to hike it south. She too went up to Washington to check out the conditions, laid eyes on all the snow and immediately headed to Ashland. She also plans to head back up to Washington in about a month. In Seiad Valley – my first resupply town after Ashland, I met Rooster and Crip Walk, two 50 something year old friends who are section hiking California from the Oregon border to Mexico. Rooster hiked the PCT southbound last year, but due to the heavy fires California decided to close to PCT hikers sometime in August, so he couldn’t finish his hike. His trail name comes from the fact that he would routinely get up to start hiking around 5 to keep up with his trail friends, who were younger and faster hikers. Crip Walk (his trail name due to his bum knee) decided to join him. Our first night out of Seiad Valley we met another SOBO section hiker named Data (I’m not a Star Trek person but he apparently looks just like the character) who is hiking to Kennedy Meadows. I don’t have a trail name yet. I had one that Lizzy gave me on the Colorado Trail, but it was a pop culture reference that was more fitting at the time and I think it’s time for a new one. Lizzy said she wouldn’t be offended if I took a new name 🙂 I’ve had a couple ideas floated my way but so far nothing has stuck. These things can’t be rushed.

In some respects I think I will get the best of both worlds. I am hiking through California pre fire season, while the weather is beautiful but not too hot and the snow has pretty much all but melted. When I go back to Washington in August, the snow will have (mostly) melted and I’ll be there during arguable the best hiking month. However, it also means I’ll run into the NOBO bubble twice, since when I start hiking south from the Canadian border, I’ll run into the NOBOs again making their way to the end of their hike. It’s not quite the solitude I was hoping for when I decided to do a SOBO hike, but hey I’ve got to roll with the punches. At least I’m out here.

I’m currently in the town of Etna, my second trail town in California, having hiked 120 miles since Ashland. Meaning I’ve done l 200 miles total – only 2400 left to go! Although, I may have mentioned in my last post that I probably won’t end up hiking the desert, especially at this point with all the jumping around I’ve done. We’ll see. For now, I’m just going to keep hiking.

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