After the day that nearly broke me, I awoke determined to approach the miles with confidence and positivity. The first challenge to my zen came even before I exited my tent in the form of a rodent robbery. A pika stole my gaiter! Well, I did not witness the theft, so this is all speculation. However, the previous night I’d been ecstatic to see that our campsite was home to pika, an elusive, small rabbit-like creature that lives in rocky, high elevation environments. The brash little creature had been atop a nearby rock calling to its comrades, perhaps alerting them to easy marks. When I discovered my gaiter had been pilfered from inside my shoe, I was less irritated than amused. While a violation of Leave No Trace principles, I rather enjoy the notion of my gray Altra gaiter being woven into a toasty nest beneath the snowy rocks, keeping a pika cozy through the winter.
Steeled with a prayer for strength, blessed with more forgiving terrain and visualizing completing the trail, the day went by with relative ease. We cruised into our campsite on Vista Creek at an early hour to discover that the gang was all there, that is, our fellow hikers who’d departed Stehekin the day before Jason and I. Talk about an ego boost! After the trials and doubt of the previous day, my confidence soared knowing we’d essentially lapped this crew of twenty-somethings.
The next day brought our greatest elevation gain yet- over 6,000 feet up, in addition to 4,300 of descent. While I was nervous that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge, again, I was pleasantly surprised with my stamina and strength. We were hiking to Mica Lake, purportedly one of the most enchanting lakes in Washington. When we staggered up to Mica through swaths of snow and overflowing streams, I found the lake indeed made a powerful impression, but more in a David Bowie in Labyrinth than a Glenda the Good Witch kind of way.
The pool was largely frozen, cerulean jeweled edges revealing crystal clear views into its icy depths. Waterfalls of snowmelt cascaded down the high rocky walls that encircled most of the frigid water. The intense late afternoon sun only heightened the eeriness of the place, the energy-sapping heat incongruous with the wintry landscape before us. While Jason relished the wintry wonderland, going so far as to take a dip in the arctic waters, my anxiety was reignited by the scene. I knew that the next morning we’d be climbing up and over the icy lake to Firecreek Pass, the second of three potentially hazardous, snowbound passes.
From the onset, the hike out of Mica Lake was unnerving, the narrow, snow covered trail skirting the steep mountain side. I moved slowly and deliberately, planting one foot in the crusty morning snow before swinging the next leg around and repeating the process. As I pressed a foot into the icy, slanted surface, it slipped downhill and, before I knew it, both feet were out from under me. Instantly, I slid down slope, luckily, though, not very far. Where I’d fallen there was a bed of shrubby, dark green ground cover. Reflexively, I grasped at the hearty plants and stopped myself from continuing down the mountainside into the snow-filled basin below. After awkwardly struggling to pull myself back onto the trail, I was in one piece but undeniably shaken. With no choice but to (somewhat) compose myself and move forward, on to Firecreek Pass.
In the history of the universe, traversing one and a half miles has never taken as long as it did that day. Trudging ever upward through more snow than not required an inordinate amount of physical effort. I had finally broken out my microspikes, crampon-like traction devices that attach to my trail runners. While the spikes gave me better purchase and allowed me to move more confidently, they also add 6 energy-sucking ounces to each foot. The exhausting climb coupled with the blinding sun reflecting off the snow left me dripping with sweat and short of breath, requiring frequent breaks to recover.
As we came into view of the ridge we’d be summiting, the trail vanished. The vast basin before us was a blank, snow covered canvas. Navigating this seemingly virgin snow brought us to an even slower pace, constantly losing our bearings, evaluating the terrain to avoid mishap, consulting and reconsulting the GPS. After a mild bout of bickering about how to proceed, we agreed we’d forgo the GPS’ unhelpful directions and cut the trail, following a faint set of footprints that climbed, from my perspective, straight up. Though I did not think it was possible, I quickly found myself sweatier, slower and more breathless than I’d been before.
As I dragged my exhausted self over the ridge onto a relatively flat if snowy surface, I felt as though I had nothing left to give. While Jason was exhilarated, I was too tired to be much of anything- either proud of conquering the pass or grateful to have it behind me. Instead, I was just plain tired. Tired from the considerable physical exertion and tired from the physic energy devoured by my fear.
The remainder of the day was a slog, not due to the miles or terrain but rather the high energy toll I’d paid at Firecreek Pass. When we arrived at our campsite for the night, I was elated to find a spacious area with lovely, flat (very important) tent sites sheltered by hemlocks. As further reward for our trying day, the site afforded an amazing view of Glacier Peak, the 12,000 foot volcanic namesake of the wilderness area we were hiking. Despite knowing the next day we’d be tackling Red Pass, the last notable snow obstacle, I fell asleep nearly the moment my head hit my makeshift pillow, a stuff sack filled with clothes.
Miraculously, Red Pass was a figurative walk in the woods compared to Firecreek. Red was just as snowbound as Firecreek and while we had the benefit of tracks to follow, minimizing navigation issues, I like to think that, despite my anxieties, my confidence, and skills, had grown through the previous day’s accomplishments. Less than a week prior, I was freaking out, convinced hiking this section was a death wish. Now, here I was through the worst of it with only 24 miles left of the most challenging stretch on the entire Pacific Crest Trail.
The last day in Glacier Peak, I found myself nimbly running down the rocky, root crossed trail. As I focused on each new step, dusty footfalls in quick succession, I was reminded of my trail running days and filled with joy. Nostalgic joy for my hours trail running back home, joy that I can run again and joy that I have this opportunity today. My fear was behind me and in its place a renewed belief that perhaps I had the physical, mental and emotional strength to hike the remaining 2,460 miles. No big deal.