Pacific Crest Trail Adventure Part III Section K (Rainy Pass to Glacier Peak Area)
After our unsuccessful attempts to sleep, John and I took to the trail at 7:14 PM on August 31st. We descended from the Cutthroat Trailhead to the Rainy Pass Trailhead on the south side of highway 20. The opening miles of section K paralleled a road, were overgrown, and also muddy. When we finally diverted from the road, our path took us deep into willow thicket and marshland. The trail was widened in spots due to others trying to avoid the mud. In other places there were makeshift bridges with branches laid in neat rows. The sun disappeared fairly quickly as we became more immersed in the dense vegetation.
After several miles however, the trail began to gradually ascend up and out of the overgrown marshlands and onto a runnable single track that towered over the creek we had been running alongside. The moon illuminated our way, but we played it safe and kept the headlamps on as well. The ambient temperatures were quite comfortable, hovering the upper 50s to low 60s. After 9.5 miles and a little over 3 hours of running, we decided to take our first sleep break.
John simply bundled up in his down jacket while I unrolled Apryle’s down sleeping bag. Because we were only planning to sleep for 1 to 1.5 hours and it was late in the evening we did not move that far off the trail. It did not take long for me to drift off to sleep, but it seems that I first began to hallucinate at this time because I was convinced that there were two deer coming towards me. I warned John and he claimed to have his headlamp fixed on them. However, the deer turned out to just be John and his pack, which does not explain what John saw that night.
We woke and I reluctantly began running again. I found being in a sleep deprived state in the wilderness does have some advantages. Essentially, with the combination of extended waking hours and strenuous exercise allows me to fall asleep anywhere and anytime. But because most of my body heat is generated from the movement, I wake back up alert, cold, and uncomfortable in a very short time. Therefore a balance is struck, allowing me to take frequent, but quick rest that make me feel rejuvenated and more alert.
The gradual ascent continued, broken only by a raging waterfall that we crossed via a well-constructed wooden suspension bridge. After the waterfall crossing, it was not long until we crossed a much larger river on a wide wooden bridge. On the other side of Bridge Creek the trail became slightly more interesting, undulating through forested hillsides. Here we spotted half a dozen Western Toads hopping around near the waters edge.
We then passed through a cross country ski area and following the reflective diamond shaped signs on the trees. We seemed to be passing through this area for a long time, but I think it was more due to our slow pace rather than the extensive distance. We agreed that it was best that we were doing this section in the dark, because it did not appear that we were missing much.
Once we passed through the cross country ski area, we came to a strange intersection with a large stone road (Stehikin Valley Road), horse stables, and several campsites. It was odd to see a developed area in the middle of the wilderness. We stopped to refill our bottles and hydration packs in Clear Creek and the trail transitioned back to single track. We passed in and out of North Cascades National Park and passed an unusual amount of trail junctions.
The next major landmark was the High Bridge and High Bridge Ranger Station. This was another area that had a groomed forest road (Stehikin Valley Road), parking area, cabins, and a study wooden bridge in order to cross Stehekin River. We navigated our way up to a trailhead that indicated that it was 20 miles to Suiattle Pass and then began ascending.
For the first several miles, the trail pitched steeply upward with several switchbacks, but then the landscape transitioned to a gradual incline through the forest. As we meandered our way through the endless sea of trees, I recall discussing vacations, honeymoons, or in some instances absence of a honeymoon, Columbian drug kingpins, and the importance of learning a second language in children’s formative years.
The miles were melting away, but there was no end to the trees in sight. Finally as the sun started to illuminate our path, we observed a mountain in the distance and some gaps in the trees. We were elated to reach a clearing, complete with a raging little stream and towering granite peaks as a backdrop. We took a moment to reorganize the packs, stow away the headlamps and refill water. Unfortunately, no sooner did we depart from the clearing, we re-entered a different forest type. This one had towering trees as well, but also a dense understory of Devils Club, Thimbleberry, Elderberry, and many more.
After only about two miles into the forest we spooked a Black Bear which barreled away from us at full speed. The Bear turned back for a second, pounded the ground and then disappeared into the vegetation. This was my first and only large mammal sighting of the entire trip.
The trail undulated through an impressively uniform and consistent forest, until we finally reached a river crossing. I took a moment to take in some calories and refill my water and psych myself up to continue as I was entering a major low point. The river crossing required some nimble foot work in order to cross the logs and hop onto a large granite slab.
Shortly after the crossing we finally came to a clearing and also a steep ascending trail as we began our gradual climb to Suiattle Pass. The temperatures were sweltering outside of the forest and I feared that my sunscreen would not hold up to the suns unrelenting rays. The trail was overgrown and narrow, but the plant that was infringing was my favorite edible berry: Thimbleberry. I must have eaten 40 to 50 of them en route to the alpine pass.
The story of the next few miles was false passes, we meandered through beautiful upland meadows that were guarded by Marmots and Pica. Blueberry bushes and other wildflowers outlined narrow cool alpine streams that were constantly supplied by the melting snow and ice above. We were treated to panoramic mountain views and despite feeling completely drained of energy, I could not help but gain some motivation from my surroundings.
Once we finally reached Suiattle Pass we caught our first glimpses of Glacier Peak, and then we descended into a forested valley. The descending switchbacks stretched for miles and miles and we finally reached the low point at the Suiattle River. There was a slight bit of route finding involved in this section and we had to cross a wooden bridge to get over to the next stretch of trail. The river appeared to have some man-made elements to it, it appeared that there was poured concrete and several wire lines crossing it. I was too tired both mentally and physically to inspect it any further. I was entering in an even lower point within the low point I had been in for hours.
John and I crunched some numbers, and realized that we were actually on a pretty good pace and that we were being a little too pessimistic in the alpine about our real time against our goal time. The trail paralleled Suiattle River from high vantage point on the forested hillside and my morale improved a little bit, but it did not necessarily improve my pace at all and I tried my best to keep churning forward, but my blisters were stinging the bottom of both feet and my right achillies tendon and peroneus tertius tendon along with my left anterior tibialis tendon were throbbing with each step. I tried to block the pain out of my mind and convince myself that I was not tired. At least the warm sun penetrating the trees helped to keep me awake and the trail obstacles well illuminated.
We finally came down to the waters edge of the Suiattle River and crossed an elegant white bridge that seemed out of place on such a rugged trail. Once we reached the other side of the river, we turned left and followed it back the direction we just came from, except on the opposite side of the river. The trail was very flat for a while following Vista Creek and the ground was littered with enormous Grand Fir cones. The trail then pitched gradually upward and it was bookended with sparse blueberry bushes. We took our time, eating as many blueberries as we could in order to supplement our dwindling food rations. It also seems that trail crews were probably unable to make it out this year because we had to climb over the several dozen downed trees that littered the trail.
We knew that we were approaching our stopping point for day one of section K, but we were looking for a logical place to set up camp. There were several occasions that we thought we might be approaching the highpoint of the climb, but we could never be so wrong. The trail kept climbing and switchbacking and each stretch of trail looked the same before the next zig-zag. However, it was quite nice that the trail was lined with thimbleberries and salmonberries which I picked whenever I got a chance. After 10 miles and 3400 vertical feet we reached the tree line and found ourselves in the alpine once again. Glacier Peak loomed in the distance and Marmots scurried around in the grass, posting up on boulders to keep an eye the ragged intruders. The trail traced through the high alpine grasses and spit us out in an upland valley at the base of Glacier Peak where streams carved through the rocky landscape and vibrant wildflowers dotted the landscape in dense patches. In the distance I was sure there were snow piles bookending the trail and was looking forward to eating a handful of refreshing cool ice. However, as we reached them it turned out the snow was actually just bleached granite that seemed to mimic snow, taunting me in the distance.
We were enamored with the exceptional views of Glacier Peak and found it hard to focus on forward progress. When I think back on this first half of section K, the trail was mostly unmemorable forested trail that seemed to meander on for miles and miles. Frankly, while doing large stretches of this in the dark, we could have been anywhere, and even in the daylight, a lot of the trail was within dense forest without views. However, our brief stints in the alpine around Suiattle Pass and around the base of Glacier Peak occupy the largest portions of my memory, despite being only a small percentage of the first 60+ miles of section K.
The sun was starting to set and it was getting breezy and cool. We knew that we needed to get out of the alpine and find cover in the trees because we did not have warm enough gear to comfortably sleep at higher elevations. We began an extremely steep descent with tight switchbacking trail that eventually led us into forest of tall narrow Subalpine Firs and other conifers. We were in search for a respite in the steepness of the trail in order to post up and sleep for a short time, however, after several dozen switchbacks and the waning light, we decided to simply stop at one of the turns and try to sleep at 8:22 PM. I took stock of my food, and got organized and then pulled out the sleeping bag and rolled it out on the flattest piece of land I could find on a bed of soft pine needles. I was comfortable for a while but several times woke to find that I was beginning to slide down the dusty trail. In addition to this John was sliding down, at one point I think accidentally kicking me in the head.
I found myself extremely disoriented during this 2.5 hour respite, for instance, I was convinced that there was someone else with us helping us set up this little camp spot, even though it was definitely just the two of us. My dreams and reality were getting blurred, I was dreaming of the PCT and in reality I was on the PCT, and with so many waking hours and so many miles on the trail, I could not distinguish which was real and which was in my mind. I think that this was start of my downfall for the mission, I was losing my grip on reality and beginning to fabricate the situation.
After tossing and turning for a few minutes and starting to get uncomfortably cold, John and I decided to start the second leg of the section K journey, which I will highlight in the fourth and final installment of this WA PCT FKT attempt series.
Time Awake Consecutively: Woke at 5:30AM on August 30th and first slept at 10:17PM on August 31st (40 hours 47 minutes)
Time Awake Total: August 30th at 5:30AM to September 1st at 10:52PM (65 hours 22 minutes)
Time Awake Total on trail: August 30th at 1:47PM to September 1st at 10:52PM (57 hours 5 minutes)
Time Slept: 4 hours in two time periods on trail (August 31st evening and September 1st evening)
Section Miles: 67.39
Total Miles for FKT: 129.42
Total Miles: 160.94
Section Time: 25:08:17
Total Time for FKT: 48:37:00
Total Time: 57:05:00
Section Elevation: 11,634 feet
Total Elevation for FKT: 22,897 feet
Total Elevation: 27,904 feet
|Landmark||Distance from Rainy Pass (mi)||Elevation (ft)|
|Make Shift Camp||9.5||3,376|
|South Fork Agnus Creek||35||3,684|
|Suiattle River Crossing||54.4||2,492|
|Make Shift Camp||67.4||5,266|