Monday, September 21, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 136: The Goat Rocks

DAY 136
September 7th, Sunday
2277 to 2291

It was another cold morning, so Zach and I stayed in our sleeping bag longer than we should have, then dawdled over breakfast: cold oatmeal with a huge heaping of huckleberries (it was delicious beyond all reason).

When we emerged from our tent, we saw that we had an ideal day for tackling the Goat Rocks: the sky was perfectly blue and the air was still. We later talked to some people who had hiked the steep trail in a fierce rain and wind, and we didn’t envy them!

Now we were packed up and barreling along the trail, trying to get to the rocks as quickly as possible. I was hoping to see some goats, and also hoping that the trail wouldn’t be too scary (although anything called The Knife’s Edge didn’t sound very encouraging). 

You can see the base of Mt. St. Helens in the left of the photo along the horizon— it was shrouded in smoke.

Soon we left the tree line behind and hiked into some mountaintops of bare sand and fine scree, interspersed with clumps of moss and low bushes. The trail was making for a nearby ridge, and, crossing that, would delve into the Goat Rocks proper.

Even though the slope we were traversing wasn’t a cliff, the walk was a bit nerve-racking for me, because a false footfall would send us careening down a thousand-foot scree slope, which didn’t sound like a lot of fun. The trail was washed out in several places, and we had to hop over little canyons. Still, the nearby mountains, drawing up to sharp and glaciated peaks, were gorgeous.

At last we crossed the ridge, walked through a huge field of wildflowers, then came to another little ridge, and before us we saw the Goat Rocks. Some people say that the Goat Rocks are the most beautiful section on the whole trail, and now that I was here, I didn’t think I could argue.

The valley before us stretched out, vast and green, cut by a hundred clear rills, speckled with wildflowers of all colors. It rose up on either side like a bowl, soaring up in green-clad slopes, threaded through with little waterfalls, and transforming into impossibly jagged, snow-painted mountain peaks. The sky was solid and blue, and there, on the horizon, still managing to loom despite its distance, stood the glacier-covered peak of Mount Rainier. We could also see Mount St. Helens off to our left, though it was shrouded in smoke. 

I look back on the picture I took of the valley, and sigh sadly. Like so many photos I took, it doesn’t capture the incredible beauty. It can’t capture the scale of the scene, the intensity of the colors, or what it was like to stand in the warm sun with a cool breeze on your face and the sharp clear mountain air and the brilliant blue sky above and the verdant wildflower-dotted valley below and the jagged black-and-white mountain peaks in between. It was so beautiful that I felt my breath taken away— and believe me, at this point I was really jaded about scenery, so that’s saying something.

Now we began hiking in a straight line along the side of the mountains, with the valley off to our left and a ridge high above us to the right. We could see the thread of trail winding its way along the mountainsides before turning a corner that would take us to the Knife’s Edge. The trail was narrow as usual, and the slope to our left plunged down steeply, but it was hard to be afraid of tumbling into that fairy-tale dream of a valley.

At last we turned away from the valley (with one last longing goodbye) and hiked through a little pine wood and out into a more alpine region, steadily climbing toward the ridge of the mountains among scattered trees, spatters of snow, and patches of tough turf.

This part of the trail was downright crowded, with many week- and weekend-hikers tackling the Goat Rocks. We saw some middle-aged guys hiking toward us, and one of them asked us eagerly, “Are you PCT hikers?”


“Oh, good!” he said, and immediately unslung his pack. “I’ve been trying to find PCT hikers all day. Would you like some apples?” He pulled out two perfectly-ripe Honeycrisp apples. “I bought them from a local orchard yesterday.”

“Yes, please!” we chorused, trying not to drool. 

The guy handed us each an apple. “I figure you guys are always malnourished,” he said.

We laughed in between bites of apple. “We certainly are.”

We chatted a bit more, then continued our separate ways, us now attempting to eat apples and hike up a steep slope at the same time.

Now the trail leveled out a bit, and we walked with a stunning view of Rainier off to our left and a ridge rising up before us. The sunny weather held and the air was mild, although we felt a chilly breeze whipping up the higher we hiked. We crossed a couple patches of snow, but the snow was firm beneath our feet, and easy to traverse.

"Zachary, look epic!"

At last we came to a junction in the trail. According to our maps, the lower route was the “Stock PCT” while the upper route was the “Hiker PCT.” We looked at both— the Stock PCT didn’t gain any elevation, but cut a path directly across a very steep and extremely-scary-looking scree slope. The thought of traversing it on a horse made my heart quail. The Hiker PCT, on the other hand, led to the top of the mountain peak far above us and looked to be a backbreaking climb. Still, it looked less scary from this angle, so we decided to tackle it.

We hiked almost straight up the side of the mountain, huffing, puffing, and struggling. We climbed through a boulder field, skirted a glacier, and at last emerged on a tip of jagged rock. Then we looked at the next part of the trail in despair. 

First, the trail plunged downward in tiny, squiggly switchbacks. The slope looked impossibly steep. And in this case, a false step would send you tumbling down an avalanche of volcanic rock, which would then launch you to the left into oblivion or to the right onto a glacier and then into oblivion. Beyond that, the trail struck out onto the Knife’s Edge, which looked exactly how it sounded: a sharp mountain ridge with the trail balanced on top.

Zach and I clutched nearby boulders, our mutual fear of heights kicking into high gear. I huffed. “Who… on… earth would decide to make a trail up here!”

“I don’t know.”

“I mean, it’s gorgeous and all, but why?!”

(You can tell that Zach and I were not cut out to be mountaineers.)

Zach started first, edging his way down the steep, gravel-covered trail, his shoes skidding a little on every other step. I inched my way after him, bracing myself with my trekking pole. It would’ve been scary enough with just my own weight to contend with, but with a twenty-five-pound bag strapped to my back, my weight felt like an unstoppable force of momentum. Sometimes one of us would cause a miniature avalanche of pebbles, and we’d both freeze and wait for the stones to settle before inching our way down again. All the while, my heart was racing. 

After way too many minutes of moving this way, the ground finally leveled out and we rejoined the regular PCT. We paused for a minute in this little flat stretch, both feeling exhausted and sore. I wanted to pause longer, but Zach felt tense and wanted to get across the Knife’s Edge as soon as possible. His fear of heights is a bit stronger than mine, especially when actual danger is involved, and he would not be happy until Knife’s Edge was behind us rather than before us.

If the scenery had been beautiful before, now it was ridiculously, stereotypically gorgeous. The sharp ridge of mountains in front of us stretched in a straight line with Rainier’s distant silhouette at the end. Another verdant valley, this one cloaked in firs, led up to a volcanic snow-draped ridge to our left, and a smooth glacier and breathtaking drop-off were off to our right. Even in the midst of my fear, I was completely blown away.

A brief moment of wide ground before the trail narrowed again.

Taking a deep breath and trying to steady our aching limbs, we started walking along the narrow trail onto the Knife’s Edge.

I don’t have any photos of this section, because I was putting all my concentration into staying calm. My heart was racing the entire time. Sometimes the trail had a sheer cliff only on one side, with a ridge on the other, providing a sense that you could only tumble to your death in one direction. Sometimes, though, both sides of the trail fell away and we were walking on something that really didn’t feel much wider than a knife’s edge. Sometimes the trail was a bit washed out. One time the trail turned sharply upward with no walls on either side: an exposed gravel-covered slope about two feet wide, flanked by sheer drops. I actually had to crouch down and calm my racing heart before barreling forward, my hands sweating profusely.

I also scared about twenty years off Zach’s life as we were traversing a particularly washed-out section of trail with a sheer cliff on one side. We were both chatting nervously, trying to keep our minds off it. Zach was half-listening to me, gearing up his body to hop over a little washed-out section, when I cut myself off mid-sentence and cried, “Zach, stop!” 

He had a miniature heart attack, reeling backward. “What?” he asked.

“Goats!” I exclaimed, forgetting my fear for a moment and pointing into a valley.

Zach looked at me with an expression like a storm cloud. “Don’t ever do that again.”

“What?” I asked, unaware of what I had done. 

After Zach showed me the error of my tone and word choice, I got him to look down at the valley to what I had seen— tiny white dots on a green hillside, unmistakably goats! I was so excited to see them, even though we could barely tell what they were.

See the tiny white dots in the valley? They're goats, I swear!

I don’t know how long it took us to traverse the Knife’s Edge, but it was way too long. Even after the ground around the trail widened and became a not-as-scary slope, we still made terrible time. At last, when we reached a dusty flat area nearly forty feet across, I convinced Zach to sit down and have a snack. We did, and he finally relaxed a little, knowing that the worst was behind us.

We ate some Snickers and other snacks. Zach checked the map and groaned. It was already getting late in the day, and we had only gone ten miles! I shook my head. “This reminds me why we never made good mileage in the Sierra,” I said. I thought ahead to the rest of Washington, and wondered if we’d be facing more mountains like this. I wondered if our 20-mile-a-day goal was going to end up being too ambitious.

We got up and started hiking again, soon leaving the ridge with one last glimpse for the day of Rainier. The trail ran down a rocky slope, and for the first time in a while, we saw marmots! They were just as cute as the ones in the Sierra, although these were larger and colored grayish-black instead of russet.

We paced a couple of weekend hikers for a few minutes, and they asked us if this section wasn’t just the best thing we’d ever seen. We acknowledged the incredible beauty, but both of us were still a bit traumatized from walking for a few hours with nonstop adrenaline pumping through our veins, so we remarked that our fear of heights made it a little less than enjoyable.

The weekend hikers seemed to think that this was laughable, and scoffed at us. “Man, I’ve hiked this section of trail about twenty times. It’s not hard!”

“It’s just steep,” I said. “And scary.”

The guys exchanged glances and snickered. “Well, we’re just training to hike the John Muir Trail.” They said this like they expected us to be really impressed.

“The John Muir Trail was harder than this,” Zach said, “at least when we went.”

The guys scoffed. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem.” Then, with one last cocky smile at us, they hiked on.

“Oh yeah?” I yelled after them. “The next time you hike more than two thousand miles in one go, give us a call and then I’ll be impressed, you jerks!” Actually, I didn’t. I just stared after them and felt like crying, then plodded on.

Fortunately, it was now, rather than earlier, that I lost my footing. My foot flew out on a patch of loose gravel and I crashed to the ground. I sat there for a second, tears welling in my eyes, while the weekend hikers, on the next switchback down, shot judgmental smiles my way. 

Zach turned to make sure I was okay. 

“I feel bad,” I murmured.

He helped me to my feet. “Those guys don’t know what it’s like to thru-hike,” he said in a quiet voice. “It’s a lot easier to hike the Goat Rocks when you’re well-fed and don’t have a fear of heights and can go home afterward.”

I nodded, sniffing. 

“C’mon, let’s get down to the tree line and find a place to camp.”

Camping in the woods and eating food both sounded like a good goal. So we headed further down, winding our way into a pretty forest that was actually a welcome relief from the intensely gorgeousness of the Rocks. We might’ve made it a bit further than this otherwise, but when we reached the 14-mile mark, we saw that Shrek and Ken were set up in a camping area, and were planning to make a fire. We decided that we had worn ourselves out enough for one day, and that the morale boost of a fire with friends would outweigh any mileage penalty.

I gathered water, Zach cooked dinner, and we ate our rations with more fervor than usual.

Shrek was making one of his usual concoctions: a mixture of whatever leftovers he found in the hiker boxes. Today it was oatmeal-ramen-mashed-potatoes. The four of us chatted about anything and everything, and then, as promised, Shrek and Ken and Zach made an enormous fire in the fire ring provided. 

We all sat around the fire far after sunset, talking about what we had seen. Ken and Shrek, who didn’t have any fear of heights, were enamored with the Goat Rocks, and through their eyes we appreciated it more again, the adrenaline melting away by the warmth of the crackling fire.

At last the fire died down. Shrek cast his Tyvek ground cloth and sleeping bag next to the embers, and the rest of us set up camp nearby and huddled in for another chilly night. Despite the fear and intermittent bad feelings, today had been a good day, and it lives in my memory as one of the most gorgeous hikes on the whole trail.


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