It’s as if the Pacific Crest Trail wants to make sure we remember there were hard times, as well as good times, before we go. Yesterday and today have been two of the hardest days of our entire trip.
Before I even get into the weather, let’s start with the terrain. The trail here climbs straight up a (very steep, and very tall) mountain ridge, spends a brief moment at the top, and then plunges back down the (very steep, and very tall) other side. When it gets to the bottom of the valley, it bounces off like a ping-pong ball, climbing back up the other side immediately after hitting the bottom. It’s incredibly tiring, and both much more difficult and not as rewarding as the passes of the High Sierra, where there’s nearly always really beautiful stuff both at the bottom and the top.
Then, biggest of all, there’s the condition of the trail itself. This is, unquestionably, the worst-maintained part of the entire PCT. The baseline is a very narrow trail with thick underbrush (usually a foot high, but sometimes six feet high) on both sides — keeping you constantly wet, and shoving at your limbs. Periodically, as you’re traversing the side of a very steep mountain, climbing it, the trail will actually tilt seriously to the side, just encouraging you to take a spill thirty feet down the mountain (and likely ending your hike in the process).
But then there are the obstacles. The most profligate by far are the downed trees: sometimes a foot in diameter, but sometimes easily ten feet in diameter (no, I’m not exaggerating here — the trees get to be huge out here), you run into one probably every five or ten minutes on average. Sometimes you can just step over them, but often enough you have to detour twenty feet off the trail (almost always down, and back up, a very, very steep slope) and clamber carefully to get around them, which takes ages. And then there are the ones where the only way around them is to crawl: I probably ended up on all fours half a dozen times this afternoon, my hands and knees in the mud, trying to make myself low enough to scoot under a gigantic tree.
We even ran into one section of trail today that was washed out. We saw a note on some logs: “PCT washed out ahead, detour”, and an arrow. The arrow, of course, pointed down a very steep slope, straight down the mountain, to the next switchback. Ten or fifteen minutes later, when we’d navigated the treacherous slope, we looked for the washout — and it was gigantic. An entire section of hillside had simply given way and fallen down, leaving a gouge easily twenty or thirty feet deep and a couple of hundred feet long. Honestly, we’re just lucky the detour wasn’t far worse, given how big the washout was.
And then there’s the weather. We got an hour or two of blissful partly-cloudy, partly-sunny weather this morning before the rain came — and stayed all day long. It drizzled, it poured, it did everything it could to us…all…day…long. At one point, we were high on a ridge, with rain blowing in our face at such speed that it hurt, stinging as if we were being pelted with sand or hail. This makes absolutely everything wet: rain pants and a rain jacket mean your clothes underneath are damp rather than soaked, but far from dry. Most painfully to me, my shoes and socks get completely soaked, and this causes an intense chafing on my toes as they rapidly form terrible blisters. I’ve been really lucky to have very few foot problems on the trail so far, but the wet does horrible things to them — I can feel my toes in pain even as I write this, and we haven’t been hiking for a couple of hours. Hopefully, I’ll be able to bandage them well enough that they’ll feel better tomorrow, but, in the mean time, it sure isn’t fun.
We’re not the only ones noticing how difficult this is. Other hikers pass by, talking about how they heard there might be sun tomorrow, or about how few miles they’re managing to put down compared to their usual. The clouds, of course, also cover up the scenery: we’re slowly passing an enormous, amazing volcano out here, Glacier Peak, that has a dozen glaciers all around it — and we’ve seen glimpses of it maybe twice over the past three days, always partially covered and hard to discern. We ache for the results of our hiking to show us beautiful things, but the weather keeps it from us.
It’s times like this that the PCT becomes a test of endurance. Would you voluntarily hike this section of this trail in this weather, say, as a weekend or week-long hike? Don’t be silly — you’d adjust plans and go somewhere else, or go at a different time when the weather was much better. This is our test simply because we’re right here, right now. We persevere, keeping in the back of our heads the knowledge that Canada is only one week away now, and less than a hundred and twenty miles. Even better, Stehekin, where we can dry off, do laundry, and relax a little, is only two more days. Two more days! Even through all of this, I think I can do that.