Smoky Old Snowy

By our third morning in the mountains, I was even more excited about the hike. I mentioned a while ago that I injured the ball of my left foot while testing my bravery in the Tree To Tree obstacle course. I had two major concerns prior to this trip which had been planned far in advance of the injury. First, that it would hurt too much for us to complete the itinerary, and I would have to hobble back early. Second, that it would re-injure or amplify the injury and that would incapacitate me for my BIG RACE coming up the end of August. Yes, the Belle Brigade is still on track and finally, finally, the pandemic has allowed us to compete in our relay race. Stay tuned. Anyway…. by the third morning I realized my foot was feeling great. In fact, the previous day I had not felt a single twinge of pain. Instead of making it worse, it seemed like the hike was making it better. I was hugely grateful and relieved.

Each day I had worriedly scoured the skies for smoke, and each day found some, but thin and at a distance. Thursday morning no such luck. During the night I had awakened to the smell of smoke twice, and panicked that our tiny campfire for the brie had somehow come back to life (even though we dumped water on it), then managed to logic myself back to sleep. When I looked out across the valley in the morning, I saw what had happened. The entire sky was blanketed in orangey-brown smoke, smudging our mountain vistas.

See that? No, you don’t, because of the smoke. It’s supposed to be a fabulous view of Mt. Adams.

Pedro’s night was a little different, and he suffered with inadequate sleep again. Overnight a wind picked up and rattled the tent and slapped at the rain cover that we had been using each night to keep the heat in. The thumping, tapping, swooshing, and rattling was all very familiar to me because I have been using this tent for about 8 years. Like I said on the first day, Pedro had to learn all the gear, including the tent. When all the noise began, he tried to imagine what was causing it. Earlier, I had told him about mice and chipmunks getting into food, so he thought there were desperate varmints trying to chew their way into the tent. He was on high alert. When the thudding and scratching occurred at ground level, he suspected there were moles trying to clear holes underneath the tent. After one loud bang that woke me up, he said to me, “I think a squirrel just landed on top of our tent.” I mumbled, “It’s the wind,” and went back to sleep. Pedro wasn’t so sure, and he was awake most of the night, ready to protect us from chipmunks and moles. By morning, he had finally agreed with me: it was only the wind. But he was tired.

We were visited in the morning by Whiskey Jacks, a predictable jay that visits camps looking for crumbs. We had eaten everything and had no crumbs to share. We were not harangued by deer flies, because of the breeze. For that we were incredibly grateful. I brewed our morning Peets coffee in peace, and made it extra rich to help wake up my man.

Whiskey Jack inclines his head toward us: “What have you got?” Possibly he prefers to be called Canada Jay.
“Seriously, I’ll eat anything,” he pleaded.
As the sun rose, the skies turned blue above us, but the horizon remained buried in haze. Here you see the site of the overnight varmint invasion, tent appearing relatively unscathed.
Without a mirror, I used my phone camera and reversed the view. The previous morning my hair was a catastrophe in the morning. This morning the braids were good enough to leave alone. Pedro asked, “Why do you think your hair stayed in place this time?” “Oils,” I answered. Because, yeah.

Today would be a treat. We would leave all our heavy gear in camp, load up my tiny day pack and our water bladders, and some snacks, and climb a mountain. This, too, I had done once before, in 2013. Eight years later and I was on the trail again, and the one main thing I was looking forward to was this particular spot with an outstanding view north to Mt. Rainier. The view is incredible and it’s the whole reason I wanted to add this day hike to our week.

Looking backward to see the trail we had already walked.

On our first day, when we stood atop Nannie Peak and looked out across a series of ridgelines and peaks, Pedro remarked that all the Mexican Catholics he knew would look out there and see the profile of a reclining Madonna or a reclining Jesus. We chuckled at those people whose worldview makes them see things that aren’t there. Thursday morning we stopped our chuckling when we spotted this.

Here, I’ve tipped the photo so you can see it better. It’s unmistakably a bearded man with a receding hairline and a pompadour. Looks like some serious lambchops too. Possibly it’s Elvis reincarnated. We began calling it Middle Aged Jesus Christ, and used Him as a landmark from then on.
We walked the highlighted route north to the peak of Old Snowy, then back to camp.
In case you’re like me, and can see it so much easier with a topographical map, here you are.

We walked again along the Pacific Crest Trail, abbreviated affectionately as the PCT. It’s the West Coast’s equivalent to the AT, or the Appalachian Trail, which is probably more famous. Since our camp was already at 6300 feet (1920m), we were quickly above treeline and spent much of the day crossing bare rocks and piles of slate (yet another volcanic rock).

Hikers ahead of us on the trail.
What seems like a single large stone, but up close shows a conglomeration of a thousand interlocking pieces of slate rock.
We did wind around hills and into sheltered areas and were treated with fields bursting with wildflowers once more. They never ceased to delight us.
The delicate loveliness of this wild phlox was unexpected.
I wasn’t the only one interested.
Part of our trail on Thursday was right on top of this snow field.

There is a snowfield very close to the Packwood Glacier and in my trip in 2013 as well as this trip, people referred to it as the glacier. Looking at the maps (above) shows that it is completely separate from the Packwood Glacier. It is however a large, steadfast snow field that seems to be here every year. Perhaps in olden days it was connected to the Packwood Glacier, or perhaps convention has it that disconnected bits are still considered part of the glacier. So honestly I’m not sure if we walked on a glacier or not. You can’t tell from the image, but it begins somewhat horizontal, and gradually tips at the other end, becoming rather steeply slanted. The snow is frozen and hard to get a foothold in. At first it was fun to walk on snow in August. By the time we reached the other side we had let go of the views and the experience, and become laser-focused on not losing our footing. It would have been a long, uninterrupted slide directly into an icy lake below, that we guessed would freeze us to death.

A view of the lake at the bottom of the snow field, after we had crossed safely and were looking back. The blue is common in high elevations and is the result of compressed ice that removes the air pockets which scatter light and make it look white. Without all the air, red wavelengths are absorbed by the ice but the blue wavelengths are still reflected.
Pedro was still standing on the easier section of ice when he took this photo. I was approaching the sketchy section. Notice the tilt of my head and you can guess what I was paying attention to.
We looked back and watched a family with a little kid cross the snowfield. The child was quite confident and ebullient, chattering away the whole time, and possibly had ice cleats to improve footing.
We arrived at the outstanding overlook point I recalled from 2013, and Viola! Uhhh, nothing. I mean, if you squint, you can detect the papery delicate lightness on the horizon that indicates the snowy peak of Mt. Rainier.

We rested at the supposed-to-be-overlook point and expressed disappointment with other hikers with cameras like mine, dangling at the end of arms hung at our sides. We turned in circles to be sure, checking the 360 degrees, and indeed, the smoke was just as thick no matter where we looked. Spirits remained high among backpackers up there though. The PCT trekkers paid it little mind and put their heads down and crossed the pass. The rest of us said happily to each other, “Even with no view, we are here, and it’s amazing.”

The overlook spot is also the location of a trail junction. On the left you see a PCT trekker with his head down and happy to have crossed the pass and now heading downhill again. On the right, Pedro stands on the “PCT Alternate/Old Snowy” trail.

We stayed there for some time to rest, because after the snow field the incline had risen sharply, and we were tired out. We tried to imagine how much harder it would have been if we had carried our full packs all that way. Bluh.

The family had crossed the snow field in safety and then headed directly up this random side trail for some reason. You can spot them if you zoom. At the right of the photo, you can see Goat Lake inside the cirque, with a little snow on it. We would be at that lake the next day.
Here you can see them, with a backdrop of more fabulous volcanic rocks! We rested at the overlook point long enough to figure out what these people were doing. It was midday and they set up a tent and had a leisurely lunch with a comfortable place to rest out of the wind and away from bugs, all with a view.
Old Snowy is the point at the right, and our destination. On the left, you see a cross. Pedro and I were not surprised to see the cross, given the precarious nature of our current hike.
We WERE surprised to find it was not a cross at all, but merely another trail sign, pointing the way back to the PCT.
This is the McCall Glacier and Old Snowy. At this point the climb was reminding me of when I climbed Fujiama. Much of that volcano is bare rock too.

We rested a lot. Mostly for me. I am not in my best shape and I was constantly gasping for breath. I wonder if Pedro thought I was having an asthma attack at any point. Like when I was on Fuji, I could only go a few feet, and I had to stop to rest. We had only hiked two miles, but we had climbed 1500 feet, and I was having a rough go.

We almost made it. The peak was right there in my sights. We ditched all our gear, camera included, because I wanted to have hands free. I clambered confidently up over one pile of rocks (the rocks on the left edge of the photo below), and stepped forward until I came to a Scary Spot. A narrow path, about 20 feet long, with sharp drop-offs on both sides. I’d be walking the balance beam down the middle, before gaining the next pile of rocks, and a safer, easier climb over to the actual peak. But my stomach and heart traded places and my heartbeat throbbed in my veins while I began hyperventilating just a little. And decided I could not do it. So we did not actually make it to the peak of Old Snowy. The peak is at 7880 feet (2402m), and we probably got to about 7870.

I couldn’t cross the Scary Spot. But it was SO close the Peak, that I decided to let people on the trail believe we had done it properly. “Did you climb Old Snowy?” “Yes!”
After descending, we spotted hikers who must have approached the peak from the other direction, since we did not pass them on the trail. In our minds we wished them good luck.

We weren’t too disappointed. The day had been fun and we had talked with some interesting people and saw some cool views in the smoke.

The smoke was too thick to see the bottom of the clouds, but we could see the top of a thunderstorm building above the smoke. Hopefully this one did not get big enough to send out lighting and start more fires.
This, my friends, is some kind of Monk Warrior hiking the PCT, who is wearing a cloak and carrying – I kid you not – a longsword. We watched him from above and I was sorry not to have met him on the trail. I’ll bet that outfit was perfect to keep the deer flies away.
Below the peak we found a pretty little stream forming from a melting snow field. It was quite unexpected to find this pretty little spot so high up in all those rocks, and we rested here for some time.
Our winding trail back to camp.

We made our way cautiously and carefully back down to the main trail and then back across the snow field. The snow field was easier later in the day, as the sun had warmed the ice and it was a little slushy, and easier to dig a foothold in. When we dropped out of the chilled mountaintop air, we noticed that hikers passing us often had beat red faces and were dripping with sweat. One woman carried a snowball that she was pressing to her cheeks and neck as she walked. We looked at each other and noticed for the very first time that we were burning up too! All that intense climbing and the cool mountaintop breeze had completely distracted us. I already had a burn from the day before (as you saw in the photo at the top), and now my shoulders were getting pink like my bright pink top. Even Pedro’s face was red.

On the way back down, we determined to go explore the campsites around this huge rock outcropping.
We took a long rest, grateful for the shade, and then climbed around and explored. It’s a very cool spot.
Pedro spotted this bear. I think it looks like a Grateful Dead bear. What do you think? I’m posting it mostly for Curt at Wandering Through Time and Place, because he sees faces in rocks and trees all the time.
Back to our water source near camp.

When we arrived once more at the bubbling springs near our camp, we made our way directly there. I haven’t yet mentioned how icy cold the water is. Apparently, water that emerges directly from the bowels of the earth is incomprehensibly cold. It was painfully cold. Though I wanted to sit with my feet in the water till my whole body cooled down, it was impossible, as only a few seconds caused sharp pains and cramping. Pedro timed his own tolerance for feet in the water, and said his max was 5 seconds. In five seconds, the water was unbearable. It’s hard to imagine water that cold, especially with sunburns on an 80-degree day. We sat on rocks and splashed ourselves and gasped, and splashed again. We wetted our hair and took pleasure in the frigid rivulets that dripped down the back of our necks.

We dumped out our warm water from the bladders, and refilled with the ice water. Then put our hot, dusty boots back on and climbed up the hill to our tent.

Tonight’s dinner was burritos. We happily pulled out the two, perfectly ripe avocados that had been rock hard three days earlier. I was concerned about having enough fuel for the rest of our trip, and tried to reconstitute our freeze-dried beans and rice by using the ice water…which was not the best of ideas but it was too late to get our sun-warmed water back. I laid the pack of beans in the sun, which helped, but it was evening and the sun was not as powerful. We were hungry, and waited as long as we could, then gave in and put the slightly crunchy beans and rice into our burritos with the last of the grated cheddar, generous heaps of avocado, and salsa (that had not leaked inside our packs!).

Due to the breeze that lasted till midday, we had not suffered with biting flies for hours and hours. It was blissful. But in the evening the breeze died off and the flies came back, swarming us twice as much, trying to make up for missing their morning feasts. We climbed inside the tent to eat dinner in peace. And take off our jackets, which were hot, but we had to wear them for protection. While in the tent I spotted two deer.

Black tail deer not as tame as the ones in my yard at home.

In the night, the breeze picked up again. This time, Pedro knew it was not marauding rodents, and finally slept. It was my turn to use the foam pad, and I tossed and turned.

6 thoughts on “Smoky Old Snowy

  1. Another magnificent hike. I did notice the sunburn. I was pleased to read about the ball of your foot. I didn’t quite make it to the top of Mount Snowdon the one time I walked up it – I think you got near enough.

    1. Thank you Derrick! Yes, I think we got near enough. I am still insecure about it though, as you can see from all the diagramming, haha. My foot still feels so much better than it did before the hike. That’s an outcome I did not expect. So cool that you hiked Mt. Snowdon!

    1. I simply love it when I spot an individual cosplaying in an environment where no one else is. I have actually seen this on Fujiama in Japan, too! A man was all dressed up in furs and knives and leather straps like some ancient Mongolian warrior, while he climbed the mountain. He blew a horn made out of a cow horn! I see people dressed similarly on a somewhat regular basis in Portland, but ours is a city that encourages it. Women in cat ears and a tail, shopping for vegetables. A man in elf ears and soft shoes and a pointed hat, waiting to cross the street. I see teenage girls dressed as anime heroes all the time. I get such a kick out of it. But dressing up to climb a mountain is next level.

      Avocados are one of the best tricks my girlfriend Margaret taught me about food in the mountains. Choose the hardest avocados you can find, and put them in your backpack. Three days later they are perfect. It always works.

      1. Ha! That’s some trick! I remember seeing a guy dressed up vaguely like an Indian in my street as I was growing up. šŸ™‚ He sold the leather products he made. It was his regular attire, no play involved. I was always in awe of him.

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