Note: all the short videos I’m making on this hike are posted on my YouTube channel PCT playlist (videos 5-14 new with this post).
I’m sitting in the little public library in Skykomish, Washington, an excellent mountain town a few hours drive from home in Liberty Lake. I’m now about 200 miles into this PCT hike and the two primary forces thus far have been the snow and sun, the latter trying its best to enable smoother hiking by speed-melting the piled snow from a heavier-than-normal winter.
With two other long trails behind me to compare, I’m confident this past couple of weeks have been the hardest hiking I’ve ever attempted. On the Appalachian Trail (AT), I never entertained the idea of quitting- it never crossed my mind. On the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), I thought of quitting often during the first few weeks of hiking in New Mexico, before finally adjusting to and eventually embracing the unique beauty of desert hiking. However, since starting this PCT hike there have been several times I really doubted I have the skills and conditioning to make it. While some of the snow crossings have scared me to my core, the larger issue has been the increased workload and irregular wear patterns on my feet from spending so much time walking on snow with microspikes (traction devices you wear on your shoes). On the CDT, I carried spikes for a brief period and used them occasionally for 5-10 minutes at a time while crossing snow fields in Glacier National Park and around a couple of the higher peaks near the southern Colorado border. By contrast, there have been several days in the past week where I hiked with spikes for 4-5 hours continuously, resulting in significant soreness and blistering in atypical spots on my feet and toes. And out of all the gear hikers may carry, the ice axe is the one I’ve balked at the most, having never felt comfortable in its uses and only carrying it out of a sense of obligation. That sentiment is now firmly in my past as I ended up having to self-arrest (bring oneself to a stop while mid-slide down steep, icy terrain) with my axe more than once. So while I’ll never question the value of mountaineering gear on a thru-hike again, my strong preference is still that I’d never need it.
On that note, as I resume tomorrow morning moving southward and as the days continue to be hot and sunny, I’m expecting to walk my way out of the worst of the snow within the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I have a new and deep appreciation for walking on steep mountain trails covered in ice and snow. And despite all the snow, mosquitos have been a force majeure too. Two nights ago I camped at an idyllic spot near a lake but had to beat a hasty retreat to my tent immediately as the mosquitos and gnats there seemed impervious to deet- a first for me.
One might read the above and ask, “If it’s that challenging, why bother?” A reasonable question for which- unfortunately- I don’t have a coherent, elevator-pitch type explanation. My reasons for being out here are deeply personal and you’d have to hike with me a while to understand them in detail, but perhaps its enough to say I feel compelled.
And because I’m loathe to end my whiny post on a down note, let me close with saying that as I hope these various pictures and the new videos on my YouTube channel portray (videos 5-14 are the new ones for this post), the Northern Cascades do not disappoint in terms of incredible beauty and serenity. If I hadn’t been so engrossed in my crash course on staying alive while traversing snow, I’m sure I would have exhausted my phone battery snapping pictures at every turn of the trail. There is something in the mist here that strangely reminds me of that deep magic that envelops the Smoky Mountains. The mountains and terrain don’t resemble each other in the least, but they share a common sense of the mystical that makes me feel as though it would be perfectly normal to see a faerie step out from the next turn of the trail. If one does, I’m going to ask her to hold my hand on the next steep traverse. I hope you enjoy and I’ll chime again at the next opportunity! All the best, Max.