22 November 2015
Pacific Crest Trail (#2000) – Segment J, Kendall Ridge
14 miles, 2000 ft. climb to 5050 ft. maximum elevation
Although everyday is a day to be thankful, it’s especially meaningful for me during this Thanksgiving week. I count among my blessings the privilege and opportunity I’ve had to frequently get outside, so much so that I recently surpassed 400 miles of trails this year since beginning my journey in March. After starting the new year (and my 40th year) with the flu, followed by bronchitis and a debilitating back injury, I wasn’t so sure I would be able to continue my high level of physical activity, even indoors at the gym. Initial hikes along simple trails with my Little Hiking Buddy offered me hope. Today, I am thankful for my renewed endurance and the chance to hike Segment J of the beautiful Pacific Crest Trail along Kendall Ridge.
The car thermostat read a frosty 26F degrees when I pulled into the snow-turned-ice filled parking lot for the Snoqualmie Trailhead of the Pacific Crest Trail early this Sunday morning. With bluebird skies overhead, today was to be my coldest and snowiest hike yet. I was especially thankful for my Heat Factory Toe Warmers, as well as the wool base layers under my snow pants and down jacket, and the piping hot coffee in my thermos. Being warm throughout today’s 14 mile adventure made the difference between my crying in frustration and my laughing in jest whenever I tripped over my two feet and landed on my derriere.
With just two other cars in the parking lot, I knew the trail would not yet be busy. Oddly enough on this frigid morning, a trailrunner in less than weather appropriate gear set off into the forest just ahead of me. Kudos to him for being that disciplined to his sport, especially when the trail was covered with snow and ice from the onset. Compared to my previous hike with LHB at Franklin Falls, the snow here was plentiful with just a few patches of dirt and stone. I was very thankful I had not only packed my microspikes, but had the mind to put them on at the onset of my journey. Just as soon as I made myself comfortable on this charming forest walk filled with logs and branches tickled with snow, I was faced with a massive felled tree that had not only taken residence across the trail, but had also decorated the entire property with its fragrant branches and needles. My super-charged boots gripped the bark as I climbed over the logs and bit into the snow off the trail. Just as soon as I made it to the other side of the blowdown, I heard someone exclaim in minor exasperation behind me. My sentiments exactly!
While the recent wave of early winter storms brought much needed precipitation and incredible snowfall, it also wreaked widespread havoc throughout Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and surrounding regions. There were numerous old-growth trees that had come crashing down on the trail during the storm, leaving myself and fellow hikers looking for unusual ways through this incredible section of the Pacific Crest Trail. This beautiful renewal of nature was both epic and surreal for me to experience firsthand.
I was then greeted by a well-worn PCT sign posted on a snow-tipped cedar, marking the start of greater things to come. The sunlight filtered through the brightly lit conifers and highlighted the snowy trail ahead. It was exquisite. I took a moment to breathe in a heartfelt thanks for this unworldly view. As I proceeded up the trail, I crossed over several runoffs that had turned into flowing cascades of icy water. I may be wrong, but I think I now understand part of why the Cascades Mountains are so aptly named – not just for the endless panoramas of peaks, but for the infinitesimal number of delightful waterfalls. This morning’s hike offered me up-close, striking displays of icicles dangling from fountains running downstream. With ice coming in the form of man-made cubes throughout my island-oriented childhood, the natural formation of these frozen crystals is beyond fascinating to me.
Leaving the forest behind, I entered a wide open talus ushering me into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness region of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. From here, I had spectacular views of snow-capped peaks all around me. The blue skies definitively outlined every nuance of every peak within my line of sight. The clarity with which I could survey this panorama was unimaginably breathtaking! I was so thankful for this view. A fellow hiker approached as I was behaving like the quintessential tourist snapping photos left and right, not wanting to forget a single memory. A bit embarrassed, I explained that those of us from Hawaii find novelty in snow at any age.
I immediately became thankful I had packed my snowshoes once I re-entered the canopied forest. The snow was much deeper as I climbed in elevation; having my snowshoes on made the trail easier to maneuver though the uneven snow packed by previous hikers. I reached a fork in the trail that signed only toward Commmonwealth Basin, so I took the path less traveled. (Well, not really since it’s typically a popular trail in milder conditions.)
With a single decision, my uneventful morning on the trail quickly turned into an adventure once I ventured further up the PCT. With my all-terrain MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes, I decided to head off-trail. I followed tracks of blacktail deer up the white slope until I was enveloped in 1-2 feet of snow hiding fallen trees from storms of long ago. The instructor of the REI Snowshoeing Basics course I took earlier this week discussed the pros of snowshoeing, including the greater depth of exploration where managed trails could not. She also highlighted the fact that showshoeing would not kill the fauna as they would already be dormant under prolonged snow. With that in mind, I forged my way through the untouched forest until I reached an open slope that offered me unwavering views of the South Cascades, including a brilliant Mt. Rainier, as well as the lower section of the PCT and the yet-to-open ski resort at Snoqualmie Summit.
It was the perfect time for a lunch break. I found an uncovered rock on this open slope to comfortably perch myself and enjoy one of my homemade pumpkin chocolate chip muffins saved from Big Hiking Buddy’s ballet bake sale yesterday. YUM! After all that hiking and snowshoeing, lunch never felt so gratifying and dessert so deserved. Within seconds of opening my lunch bag, a visitor arrived and made herself quite known. This little scavenger was intent on a handout, as she not only watched me from feeding distance but also waited until I left for any crumbs to be had.
Once I regained some energy from my carb-filled lunch, I made my way up the steep slope. Even with my rockstar snowshoes, I managed to trip and fall too many times to count. Since I have a long history of being a royal klutz, I just laughed off each snowy slide and was thankful that nothing was broken (yet). When I found myself back under the trees, I noticed the playful light dancing through the branches. The shadows in the snow were sprinkled with glints of diamond-like crystals, reminding me instantly of the love my two hiking buddies have for all things shiny. I drew symbols of each of my budding naturalists as a way to share this experience with them.
After another half mile of blazing my own way through the deep snow, I finally spotted the PCT down below me. From my vantage point, it was a steep descent in nothing but powder. Remembering the anecdote used by the REI instructor, I sat on my bottom and used my snowshoes like skis to slide straight down the hill. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to be a kid again for that brief moment! The option to make it over to Kendall Katwalk no longer seemed interesting given the adventurous view I drank in earlier. From there, I hiked parts of the trail I completely missed on my ascent. This was backcountry hiking! At such a high elevation, this part of the trail was narrow and deeply covered in powdery snow.
I was able to descend most of the trail quickly with my snowshoes. I soon ran into the same hiker who caught me in tourist-mode earlier; he was kind enough to direct me toward the right split in the trail. I followed him down most of the trail, where we ended up chatting about any and everything. He seemed so happy and at ease in the mountains. I mentioned to him that even his gait was cheery. I was thankful for his company on this day, even though I enjoyed the solitude of being alone on most of my adventure. After a full day playing in the snow, it was nice to return home in less than an hour to a warm 46F degrees in our neighborhood. It was a great day to be thankful!