Bring Your Own Llama

Annette Lake will always hold a special place in my heart and not just because the sign at the trailhead promotes the fact that llamas are allowed on the trail, although that is one of the many reasons.  

When I first rediscovered hiking a few years ago Annette lake was one of the first hikes on my list. I recall convincing my friend Derek to join me on my first trip. We started up the trail in the afternoon not really knowing what to expect,  moving slowly and trying to figure out how far was had left ahead of us.  We didn’t have maps or cell reception but tried to make educated guesses based on the elevation data from the GPS on our phones. Not only were we lacking in navigational resources but many other essentials as well, as would become very apparent.  As we continued on the trail we began to hear thunder in the distance which not only became closer and louder,  but from multiple directions.  Luckily we were smart enough,  or more likely tired enough,  to decide to turn around.  The thunder continued to intensify until the sky opened up and poured down rain. Not wanting to get struck by lightning we began to run down the trail, trying not to slip and fall. After coming close to rolling my ankle a few times,  maybe falling once, and getting soaked to the bone we ended up back at the car and drove home.  I’d later find out that my camera, a decent DSLR, somehow got damaged to the point that it wouldn’t turn on and I had to buy a new one. 
Despite a challenging first attempt I was determined to make it to the lake. After getting a few more hikes under my belt, and making sure I had proper rain gear,  I cautiously returned to finish the hike.  As soon as I started down the trail I was surprised by a very unexpected text message from a friend,  and avid hiker, that I hadn’t heard from in a long time.  I took it as a sign that I picked the right day to come back. The hike and the lake was stunning and it felt great to finally make it all the way. 

Since then I have returned a few times,  sometimes as an introductory hike for friends. When I discovered that Cristina had never been it moved to the top of our list and in early July we crossed it off. 

Before heading up the main trail you can take a quick detour down a short trail to a nice little waterfall.  The trail itself is pretty gentle,  crossing under some power lines and across a forest road before hitting a series of switchbacks. 

As you continue on you’ll come across one of my favorite “bridges”, a couple platforms lead to the “bridge” which consists of steps cut into a large downed tree with a wooden hand rail. 

A little further up there is another smaller waterfall that cuts down through the trees.  

As you near the top you’ll pass across a couple avalanche chutes where the break in the trees reveals some nice views, which apparently I didn’t take any pictures of this time.  The trail flatens out as you approach the lake. 

The lake itself sits below some impressive peaks and just asks to be swam in.

Cristina and I made our way around the lake until we found a place to escape the heat, set up our hammocks and relax for a while. 

When we finally gave into the fact that we couldn’t stay forever we made our way back down and just like every other time I visited Annette lake I didn’t come across someone with a llama, maybe I need to become the guy with a llama. 

What To Wear 

In an earlier post I covered all the gear i’ll be using on the PCT, now it’s time to talk clothing.  One question you may have is how much clothing I’ll bring with me and the answer is only what is necessary.  This means that I’ll be wearing the same thing for most of my time on the PCT, washing it periodically and only replacing items as the wear out.  Here are the basics.

Columbia Thistletown Park T-Shirt – Basic T-shirt that is advertised to wick away moisture. I’ll probably swap  this with a Merino wool shirt. Merino wool is great in both cool and warm weather, wicks moisture away, is quick drying and resists odor.

Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Pants – My go-to hiking pants as they are light, wick away moisture, offer sun protection and easily convert into shorts.  Although I found that they can restrict movement in some situations so I may switch it up and go with a pair of shorts that allow for better movement.

Darn Tough Hiker 1/4 Socks – Merino wool socks! Really durable, comfortable and odor resisitant, what more do you need?

Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Shoes – Obviously footwear is very important. These are arguably the best through-hiking shoes. They are light with natural foot positioning, gaiter attachment points, drainage holes and are quick drying.  I definitely go through a few pair of these.

Two Beers Hat – I need something to wear on my head and Two Beers is awesome.

So that is what i’ll be wearing most of the time, but since the the PCT crosses through almost every type of climate I’ll need to switch it up a bit as conditions change. The first thing I need to be prepared for is the desert, where sun protection is of the utmost importance. While in the desert I’ll swap out my t-shirt for a white long sleeve shirt, which provides SPF 50 protection, and swap out my hat for a big dumb floppy sun hat. I’ll also have my pair of Julbo MonteBianco Sunglasses. Another item i’m considering is a pair of light weight gloves to protect my hands from sun exposure, I’ve heard of hikers getting pretty nasty sunburns on the top of their hands when using trekking poles in the desert.

When I get into colder climates I’ll start layering up with my favorite material for outdoor activities, Merino wool! I have a pair of Icebreaker Lightweight Leggings and a Icebreaker Lightweight Hoodie (Which I would link to but apparently it’s no longer available), and an Icebreaker  Sierra Beanie. These do a great job of keeping me warm in cold weather while i’m moving but for the times it gets really cold or i’m relaxing after a day of hiking I also have the Mountain Hardware Ghostwhisper Down Hooded Jacket, which is super light, really warm and packs down nice and small.  Other items that will keep me warm are a Merino Wool Buff for my neck and face and Mammut wool gloves.

The final thing I need to be prepared for is something I’ve been dealing with my entire life… rain. For the rain I have the Outdoor Research Helium HD Jacket, which packs into it’s own pocket. I considered getting the matching pair of rain paints but since i’ll most likely be wearing my convertible pants as shorts, I would rather avoid the extra weight and just dry my legs off when needed.  I have come to terms with the fact that no matter how hard I try to avoid it I will end up being wet.

Speaking of getting wet I also have a pair of Xero Z-Trail Sandals for water crossings and for at camp. Like the Altra Lone Peaks they have natural foot positioning and I’ve heard that some people will actually hike in these, I may end up being one of those people if they are awesome as they sound.  Also, when it comes to feet, I have a pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters to keep debris from finding its way into my shoes and a super comfy pair of heavyweight wool socks to wear after a long day of hiking.

The last thing I need to figure out is what i’m going to wear when I need to wash everything at a laundromat when I stop in a town…..

The Enchantments

The area known as “The Enchantments” near Leavenworth, Washington is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Due to it’s popularity a lottery for a limited number overnight permits is held early each spring, which I never seem to have lucky with.

In the lottery you specify the date you are hoping to start along with your desired zone, the most sought after being a “Core Permit”. Not only does a Core Permit allow you to camp in the Core Enchantment zone, which is what most people think of when you mention The Enchantments, it also allows you to also camp in any of the other zones as well.  After the Core Enchantment zone the most popular zone is the Colchuck followed by Snow and Stuart zone. The least desired zone in  The Enchantments is the Eightmile / Caroline Zone as it does not have a trail which allows you to access the  Core Enchantments.  After the lottery there always ends up being some Eightmile / Caroline permits available.

Even though the Eightmile / Caroline zone is the least popular zone in The Enchantments it is still a spectacular area to visit and since my lottery losing streak continued this year I picked up a permit for Cristina and I. We drove out to stay with friends in Plain, Washington, which is close to Leavenworth and The Enchantments. It is here were I tried to stuff all my gear into my backpack for the first time. After a few very frustrating hours full of swear words, I manged to get everything to fit. All Cristina ended had to carry was her own sleeping gear, toiletries and clothes, I was able to carry everything I would on the PCT. I was so happy when I got everything to fit I had to take a picture.

The next morning we headed out early to grab coffee and unsuccessfully attempted to get a better permit at the ranger station, we did however have a backup plan.  The plan was to knock out a hike up to Colchuck lake, which is the most popular day hike in The Enchantments, before hiking to Eightmile lake to spend the night.  After stopping for breakfast we drove up the surprising smooth forest road to the Stuart Lake trailhead and headed out.

The trail starts off pretty tame with minimal elevation gain, crossing a very aggressive creek about a mile and a half in. 

On our way up we passed a good amount of wildflowers as we darted in and out of the the tress, enjoying the shade they provided as it was starting to get rather warm. 

After hiking for a few miles we hit the junction with the trial up to Colchuck Lake, the main trial continuing on to Lake Stuart.

A short distance down the Colchuck Lake Trail we were again met by the angry creek and a very cool wooden bridge which leads into a small boulder field which was fun to navigate thorugh.

The trial then begins to climb with more intensity with plenty of switch backs. At one point the trail crosses across a small waterfall, we both somehow managed to keep our feet dry while crossing.

Continuing up the trail we made our way to a clearing allowing us to look back down the way we came with a stunning view of Mt. Stuart in the distance.

The trail dipped back into the tress for the final push to the lake, at one point the trail intersected with a stream which was a little tricky to navigate through. Once we arrived at the lake we were greeted by the massive Dragontail Peak and  the slightly smaller Colchuck Peak with Asgard Pass between the two, which we would have had to conquer if we had a snagged a Core permit. I think we were both a bit relived that we didn’t as watching people make their way up was a bit intimidating.


After I took a quick swim in the extremely cold lake we ate lunch and started to head back down where we came across a very hungry mountain goat who luckily had plenty to much on and was too busy eating to be concerned with us.

Once we made our way back down to the trailhead we hopped back in the car and made the quick trip over to the Eightmile trailhead to begin our hike up to Eightmile lake.

The sun was rather intense as we made our way up but I found myself distracted by the abundance of wildflowers and some tiny pine cones.

The trail to Eightmile lake is fairly flat which was a nice change of pace after the hike up to Colchuck. A few miles in we hit Little Eightmile Lake which is also the junction for Caroline Lake, which would be our destination the following day.

After a quick break we continued onward as the trail climbed a bit before we arrived at the lake. We found a site and just as I finished setting up the tent a group of very loud college girls decided to set up camp just feet from ours. We quickly packed up, grabbed our backpacks and made our way to another, much better, site right by the lake. Luckily my tent is extremely easy to set up and take down.

After getting everything set up again I took a quick swim in the lake, which was just as cold as Colchuck but it felt amazing after hiking in the sun all day. As we were having dinner one of the locals decided to come dine with us (yes, those are flowers in it’s mouth).

We were both pretty tired after a full day of hiking and after staying up late enough to see the stars decided to get some much needed rest.

The next morning we followed the trial around the lake, hopped over some trees and found another angry stream cutting through the forest.

After breakfast we packed everything up and made our way back down the trail to Little Eightmile Lake where we started up the trail to Caroline Lake.  While the trail didn’t seem very difficult on paper it did prove to be a challenging hike.

The trail starts out rather steep and provides very little shade, which was sorely missed as the sun was blazing as we made our way up.  We would take a break every time we came across a bit of shade.

I even resorted to hiding from the sun in the narrow shadow of a large dead tree and soaking my hat in water to keep cool.

As I looked back down towards Eightmile lake I tried to visualize myself swimming in the ice cold water, it didn’t help.

A little further up the trail we met a couple on their way down and chatted for a bit. The said that the lake was spectacular and warned us about a Coyote they saw up at Windy Pass. We were considering making the hike up to the pass  but decided to avoid it after that.

However, as we rounded a corner about a mile later we were met by a lone Coyote standing in the middle of the trail staring us down. Considering that Coyotes are pack animals I decided to skip the photo and clanked my hiking poles above my head until he decided to head off the trail and run down into the valley. We cautiously continued to the lake without seeing or hearing another.

We found that not only were there no loud college girls at the lake but in fact there was only one other couple on the other side of the lake.  We set up camp and I took a swim in the warmer but still cold Caroline lake.  We spent the rest of the day relaxing before we were forced into the tent due to an army of mosquitoes that occupied the lake.

The next morning I somehow managed to get up early enough to catch a bit of the sunrise.

After enjoying the lack of mosquitoes at the lake for a bit we packed up camp and started our hike back down to the trailhead. We both had one thing in mind as we struggled through the heat….

…..a sausage and beer at Munchen Haus in Leavenworth!  While we didn’t end up hiking through the “real enchantments”, which is probably for the best, we made the most of our time in a really amazing place. Hopefully we can snag a core permit after I finish the PCT next year.


All The Gear, All Lined Up

When I fist started looking at gear for my PCT adventure I planned to carefully weigh my options for each item I would be bringing with me, by not only reading reviews but physically inspecting and testing items out before making my final decision. You may remember earlier posts about backpacks and tents, where I outlined different option sand attributes with the intent to dive deeper to each option. Well, that didn’t happen. After discovering the wealth of detailed reviews and ranked lists of backpacking gear I just started buying things, here is what I ended up with.

For my backpack I ended up with the ULA Circuit.  I didn’t necessarily chose this backpack, it just so happened that my brother had one that he never used and was willing to part with for $100 (Thanks, brother!).  I love how it carries and the way the hip belt moves with you while you’re hiking.

For a tent I ended up with the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2. It was at the top of many lists and while I could have gone with something lighter (and more expensive), I felt better getting something I believe to be more durable and sturdy, call it my security blanket.  It’s super easy to set up and nice and roomy. I also picked up the footprint for it too. However, while the extra space of a 2 person tent is nice I’m wondering if I should switch to the 1 person version for the PCT.  I wonder if my decision was a subliminal one.

After considering going with a sleeping quilt I decided to go with a sleeping bag, the weight difference wasn’t substantial enough for me to risk having drafts of cold air attack me while sleeping. I landed on the REI Co-op Magma 10 and apparently so did a lot of other people because it wasn’t easy to track down, all the REI locations were sold out when I went to buy it. The first time I tried to buy it I had made a special trip to Portland to avoid sales tax , the second time I had a 40% off coupon for the REI friends and family sale. However, third time’s a charm; Cristina and I went to some outdoor event only to find REI was handing out 35% off coupons and had it back in stock!  The sleeping bag itself was well worth the wait and effort, it’s not named “Magma” for nothing.  I also picked up a silk sleeping bag liner to help keep it clean, I can only imagine how filthy i’m going get.

For a sleeping pad I went all out and picked up the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm Max. I didn’t realize how important sleeping pads until I started looking into my sleep setup. With a down sleeping bag it’s the trapped air that is keeping you warm, when you’re laying on the down it is compressed causing it not to provide insulation from underneath, so a good sleeping pad will provide the insulation your sleeping bag doesn’t.  This one is nice and comfy but it does make crinkly noises when you move around it, a small price to pay for warmth.

My last major gear purchase was a new camera, the Sony A6000! I had already accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be bringing my heavy DSLR and was planning on just using my phone for photos. However, I just couldn’t do that, I need (heavy emphasis on the word “need”) an actual camera for my hike. I considered a compact point and shoot but was concerned about the lack of zoom, so I went the mirrorless route instead. Having a digital display viewfinder takes some getting used to but I’m amazed by the pictures it takes. While it barely fits in the hip pocket of my backpack I’m happy I decided to get it.

In addition to the major items here is the rest of the gear i’m taking with me.  I’ll cover clothing in another post.

  • BearVault BV500 – Extra big ass bear can! While i’m not overly concerned about bears a bear canister is required in sections of the PCT.  This thing is huge, I have yet to figure out how i’m going to carry it with me.  It does double as a seat, so I have that going for me.
  • Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe – Another item I will only need for parts of the PCT but this one is a little more important, as I learned when learning how to keep myself from sliding off a mountain in the snow. I could have gone with a lighter version but if i’m going to need it I want to make sure it’s not going to fail.
  • Leki Corklite Treking Poles – A friend of mine pretty much demanded that I get Leki poles when I started hiking seriously and I’m glad I listened. I’ve put a lot of miles on them and they’ve held up great.
  • Kahtoola MicroSpikes – Added traction for the icy bits of the trail, makes it super easy to not slip and fall on your butt.
  • MSR Titan Kettle – Since I’m planning on dehydrating a majority of my food in ziploc freezer bags (easy clean up) I really just need something to boil water in, this will be more than sufficient. It can also double as a coffee mug.
  • MSR Pocket Rocket 2 –  While I currently have another canister stove I’ve decided to pick up the Pocket Rocket 2 as it’s lighter and probably a bit more reliable than a no-name brand.  I don’t have it yet, I will soon!
  • Long Handle Spoon – With the plan to eat most of my meals out ziploc freezer bags having a spoon with a long handle will keep my hands clean. So while you think my spoon might be too big, it’s not, but this guys is.
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge – Yep, it’s a phone.  The same phone I have with me every day. However, more importantly, it functions as a GPS and there are some great PCT apps out there, some of which I mention in my PCT Resources post.
  • Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter – This water filter and I are going to be best friends. I’ve used a Sawyer Squeeze on my backpacking trips and while it takes a little work it gets the job done. Not to mention it fits perfectly on top of a smartwater bottle, which my backpack is designed for.
  • Generic First Aid Kit – I’d link to it but i’m not sure what brand it is. I’ll probably switch it out with a more compact single use kit.
  • Huntsman II Swiss Army Knife –  It took me a while to find a pocket knife that had scissors, a can opener, bottle opener, saw and tweezers.  This one has me covered.
  • The Deuce Of Spades –  Super lightweight, just a tad over half an ounce, shovel for digging holes. I mean how could I not buy it with a name like that?
  • Generic USB Battery Pack – The one I have now is nothing that special, i’ll probably upgrade it soon. Not only can I use it to charge my GPS (phone), it can also charge my camera as well!
  • Klymit Pillow X – Tiny little inflatable pillow. I’ll probably end up using my puffy jacket as a pillow most nights.
  • Petzl Tikkina Headlamp – Cristina had an extra so I adopted it as my very own, the one I had wasn’t very bright. Might look into upgrading it to something even brighter! (not pictured)
  • Sunto A-10 Compass – A compass that works great!  However, I should probably upgrade to one that I can adjust the declamation on.
  • Other Stuff – A lighter, tooth brush, tooth paste, dr. bonner’s soap and a camp towel.

While this is a lot of stuff it does fit in my backpack with room for my clothing and food, both of which I’ll cover in a future post.  Wait, I feel like i’m forgetting something….. that always happens to me when I’m packing for a big trip.

Return to Mount Teneriffe

After not making it to the top of Mt. St. Helens  I got the itch to summit something.  I started to consider my options for an after work hike, something that would only take a few hours, a short drive from Seattle, and allow me to stand on the tippy top of something.  I considered a few different hikes, some were too far away, some were too long but Mt. Si seemed just right. While it wasn’t anything exciting or new,  it is just a short drive from work and it had been a while since I climbed all the way up the haystack.  Plus the trail traffic would be at tolerable levels during the week.

So one day after work I made my way to the Mt. Si trailhead and started up the mountain. As expected the trail wasn’t busy at all, I only passed a handful of people on my way up, not something you’d experience on a weekend.  About an hour and a half later I was nearing the top and after navigating over the false summit I arrived a the scramble.

I remember the first time I stood at the bottom of the scramble, nervously thinking that there was no way in hell I was going up. I watched as a few hikers easily navigated up the rocks and figured if they could do it so could I, eventually convincing myself to make my way to the top.. very slowly.  This time, I was excited to see how quickly I could make my way up.  I found a path and scrambled my way up to the top.

On my way up I couldn’t help but feel the need to start climbing again, and by “again” I mean since those two months I spent in a climbing a few years ago. Looking back down was a bit intimidating but I didn’t have to worry about that yet.

At the top of one scramble I was met with the other, much shorter, one. While it is shorter a misstep would result in a pretty bad fall.  I  carefully made my way to the summit and took a moment to take in the views.

I looked back down the side of the mountain and while I felt like I accomplished something It still didn’t fill the void left by Mt. St. Helens. Don’t get me wrong, It was a great feeling to stand at the top and the views were amazing, but it  just wasn’t the challenge I was looking for. 

Looking east towards the Cascades I started to look for another peek to climb that weekend , when the obvious became clear.  I had to return to the only hike I didn’t finish this year, the only way to make up for one incomplete hike was to finish another incomplete hike.  I was heading back to Mount Teneriffe.

Early Sunday morning I made my way to the tiny Mount Teneriffe trail, threw on my backpack and started out. I was on a mission and quickly conquered the flat bit before starting to head up the rocky switchbacks.

The foxgloves were out in force as I made my way up past Teneriffe falls, not stopping to take a picture,  and practically climbed my way up to the top of the ridge.  I took a break to look around and found that like last time I was surrounded by clouds. I continued on ran into another hiker making her way up the trail.

As I got ready to pass her she asked me which way the trail went. She followed me up for a bit before I stopped again to throw on another layer and she continued on I eventually caught up to her and she once again asked me which way the trail went.  As continued up I thought about my last attempt Mt. Teneriffe and remembered where I was when I turned around, before I knew it I had my way to that point.  Knowing that I still had I ways to go I pushed on.

However, I discovered that the trail wasn’t as long as I remembered. After I made my way through another grouping of trees I came to the clearing right before the summit, which still had a bit of snow, the thing that made me turn back last time.

I crossed the snow and made my way to the summit, completely clouded in and windy. I still took a few minutes to look around and enjoy  finally making it back to the top.

I walked around the top and found the marker. When I looked over the edge all I could see is white.  While it didn’t have great views like Mt. Si it was a much more rewarding experience. It was both mentally and physically challenging, and what feels better than overcoming failure and completing a goal. Now I just need to go back to Mt. St. Helens…

Hiking In The Dark

At the end of last July I fulfilled a lifelong goal by climbing to the top of Mt. St. Helens.  Ok, this wasn’t a “goal” until last year, but I had always thought it would be cool to stand on the rim of the crater and look down inside, never imagining that I would actually do it.  The climb to the top was both challenging and exhausting, full of giant rocks and ash but getting to the top was worth every agonizing step.  So, when the on sale datef for 2017 permits was announced I decided I needed to go back and somehow managed to talk Cristina and my friend Shanelle into joining me.

When the permits went on sale at the beginning of February we (I) decided on June 12th for our climb.  I figured that would allow for more than enough time for a majority of snow to melt off.  However, in my excitement there were two things I didn’t account for.  The first being that last year as really dry and it didn’t snow much, so I didn’t have to deal with any snow on my last climb.  The second thing I didn’t account for is that we just had a harsh winter with a lot of snow in the mountains.  As the date of our climb drew closer it became clear that we would be dealing with snow, something neither Cristina or Shanelle signed up for.  I reassured them that the snow would actually make things easier since it would cover all the giant rocks that made things difficult for me last year and promised to teach them how to use an ice axe.  I did, however, downplay the fact that we would have to take the winter route which adds an additional 2 miles and 1,200 feet of elevation gain.

After months of waiting the day came and we headed to our campsite at Beaver Bay campground in Cougar, Washington (I may have let my inner child choose the campground just for the jokes).  Once we arrived and set up camp I began to float a fantastic idea I had..  to hike at night!  This idea was mainly due to the fact that I was slightly concerned about a couple things. One was that it was starting to warm up during the day which meant that the snow would turn to slush and make things really slippery. The other concern was that the forecast called for rain in the afternoon, which would block any views we would have from the top. I tried to sell my idea by mentioning that we could make it to the rim in time for the sunrise, which would be an awesome sight.  Somehow I was able to convince both of them that hiking at night was a good idea and we decided to head to the trailhead around 11:30 PM. Yeah, they probably didn’t think it was “a good idea” but they were on board.

The next thing I knew it was time to head out and we started to make our way to the trailhead. This presented the first obstacle to hiking at night, finding the trailhead in the dark.  I somehow missed a turn and we ended up going much further east than we needed to.  However, we did get to see a huge elk as it darted across the road in front of us; we were all suddenly wide awake after that. After our hour long detour we finally found the trailhead, which was surprisingly full of cars and tents, they must have known how easy it is miss the turn in the dark. While there were plenty people camping out to get an early start, we were the only ones that were gearing up to head out at 1 AM.  We found the trail and headed out.. to climb a volcano.. covered in snow… at night.
The trail cut through the trees, starting out gently and snow free as everyone acclimated to hiking by headlamp.  Shortly down the trail I somehow spotted a spotted owl, who i’m going to say was named Spot, perched in a tree next to the trail. I’m sure Spot wasn’t too happy about all three of us blasting it with our headlamps as we stared at it for a minute or two but it was a nice way to start the hike. As we continued on we started to encounter patches of snow with a nice worn trail, as planned the snow was frozen and easy to cross.  Once the snow became more prevalent we threw on our microspikes, which made hiking in the snow drastically easier, and continued on.  As we emerged from the trees we heard water flowing over Chocolate Falls, we stopped to take a look but couldn’t see much in the dark.  Not only was it dark but it had gotten a bit foggy as well, which caused the light from our headlamps to only illuminate the area 3 feet in front of us. We continued up the trail which eventually began to get hard to follow.  I checked the GPS and discovered another challenge of hiking in the dark, we had started to follow a different trail than planned.  Not knowing if it would eventually re-join with the main trail we backtracked and rejoined our intended trail, this is when things started to get a bit steep.

Since we were starting to really climb upwards in the snow we broke out the ice axes before continuing up the snow field, luckily none of us ended up slipping and having to use it.  Up until this point we hadn’t seen another person on the trail at all, which was really nice, but were quickly passed by two girls that we watched fly up the trail, they must have had super powers. After a bit of traveling in the snow we hit the rocky spine of the trail which was surprisingly snow free.  While it had gotten a bit lighter out at this point navigating through the rocks was a bit tricky, I don’t think I adequately explained the volume and size of rocks and boulders to either Cristina or Shanelle ahead of time.  As we continued on we heard a loud noise, which I can only describe as a cross between a roar and a screech, it seemed to be coming from multiple directions. I swear it was above us but was unable to see anything because of the clouds,  Cristina and Shanelle thought it might be elk or some other animals. We were all pretty tired at this point so who knows what we actually heard.  I still say it was a pterodactyl circling above us.

Next thing we knew the sun began to rise and the clouds appeared to erupt out of the mountainside. We took a break to take in the view, have a snack and asses our progress.  We were just short of the weather station which meant while there wasn’t much distance to cover there was still a lot of elevation gain left.  It’s at this point we decided to turn back, while everyone could have made it coming back down wouldn’t be easy, despite being able to glissade for part of it. Not to mention we were all thinking about crawling into warm sleeping bags and getting some sleep.  We threw our packs back on, and started to head back down.

On our way back down we started to pass people as they were heading up. Some of them were friendly but a lot of them weren’t, which was suprising.  We did however have fun responding to people when they asked “You already summited?!”. I think my favorite was “Yep, second time today”. The question got old really fast though.  I was surprised by the number of people hiking up with snowboards, had to be a fun way to get down. Sure enough, on our way down the snow had already started to turn to slush, it would not have been fun to try to hike through slush with rubber legs had we continued.

Once we made it back to the campsite we got some much needed rest, only to be awoken by an obnoxiously loud garbage truck emptying the abundance of trash cans scattered through the campsite.  We then decided that since we already went up it was time to go down, so we headed to the Ape Caves.  The Ape Caves, otherwise know as lava tubes, were formed by the flow of, you guessed it, lava. Apparently they are called the “Ape Caves” because some miners claimed they were attacked by apes when they were down there.  I was a bit nervous as there are plenty of bats in the ape caves and i’m not a fan of bats,  luckily there were no bats in the section we explored.

As you might expect it was a bit chilly inside, and just like during our hike up Mt. St. Helens we made good use of our headlamps. Our final destination was what is known as “The Meatball”, I have no idea why they call it that.

After exploring the Ape Caves we returned to the campsite at Beaver Bay, in Cougar, (heh) and enjoyed relaxing around the campfire with plenty of s’mores making their way into my tummy. While we didn’t summit Mt. St. Helens we still got to hike at night, which was an awesome idea. We had the trail to ourselves, avoided slipping and falling in slushy snow, met an owl named Spot, heard a pterodactyl, and got to watch the sunrise.

Serenity Now!

A few weeks ago I welcomed one of my best friends back to Washington by introducing her to one of my favorite easy to get to hikes, Lake Serene. While it is a bit of a drive to get to from the Seattle area the trail head is just off of Highway 2 and not down some long bumpy forest road like many others are.

We set out Sunday morning guided by Waze as I was not awake enough to trust my own navigation skills. Plus, i’m always a bit amused by how the British navigation voice pronounces things,  our favorite of the trip was “Mt. Index” (say it fast and use your imagination).  When we arrived at the trail head we found that the parking lot was already full, luckily there was still parking along the Skykomish River.  We threw on our packs and started  down the trail.

The trail starts off pretty flat along an old road which splits almost immediately. A sign points you in the right direction but every time I visit  I find myself wondering  where the other fork goes but have yet to find out. Even though the trail is a popular one, the first bit of the trail is dense with foliage that you have to work your way through before it opens up into a wooded forest.

A little more than a mile and a half in you can split off on to the half mile trail up to Bridal Veil Falls, which is beautiful. However, we had both been there before and with the parking lot as full as it was we knew it would be pretty busy, we were on a mission to get to the lake.  However, here’s a picture of the falls from one of my previous visits in case you were wondering what it looks like.

After the turnoff for Bridal Veil the trail continues through the forest  before crossing a bridge over a smaller waterfall, which is sadly mostly obscured by trees. The trail then drops down to another more impressive waterfall, but not as impressive as Bridal Veil itself. This is a good spot to stop and take in the view and have a snack as the trail is about to get a little harder.

As soon as you move past the falls the trial gets rocky and starts to gain elevation quickly.  All that flat is a thing of the past. As you head up you can take a look back and see part of the falls through the trees. The trail turns into a series of switch backs as you continue upward, some times rocky and sometimes including steps. Luckily it seemed as if  most people were headed for the falls as the trail wasn’t that crowded. Navigating around the rocks and tree roots is extra challenging when it’s crowded, especially with hikers that don’t follow proper trail etiquette.

Once you make your way a bit further up you pass through clearings where you can catch glimpses of the surrounding mountains and the river below. All that time working the switchbacks finally starts to payoff with some spectacular views on a clear day. The trail crosses through a water fall as you begin your final push up to the lake catching views that are more impressive than the last.  Right before you reach the lake you will see parts of Mt. Index shooting upwards towards the sky.

When we arrived at the lake we found that there was still a bit of ice covering it and clouds rolling down the side of Mt. Index.

As we took it all in the clouds began to shift and expose different parts of the mountain.
But as we were staring up at the mountain someone was staring at our snacks. He wasn’t as sneaky as he thought he was, i’ll give him an A for effort though.

You can begin to work your way around the lake crossing over a bridge at the top of the runoff  that turns into falls. Right after the bridge you can follow a short trail to the right to look over the valley below.

The trail continues around to “Lunch Rock” which is a big flat rock perfect for taking a break and … having lunch..  before you head back down.  We, however, had other lunch plans and after enjoying the lake started to make our way back down. The trip back can be just as challenging as the way up, if not more so. All those rocks you have to climb over on your way up are now tricky obstacles to navigate on your way down, the last thing you want to do is roll an ankle. It’s funny how quite hikers get as they are focused on their footwork.  The final stretch of the trail before the trail head, that nice flat beginning of the trail, seems to drag on forever and seems to be longer than it was on the way up.

Once you reach your car and begin your trip home you’ll face another, and perhaps unexpected, obstacle of the hike. Traffic on Highway 2. It can be very slow going on the 2 lane highway as you make your way through Gold Bar, Startup and Sultan.  When we finally hit Sultan we made a stop for lunch at Bubba’s Roadhouse.  In keeping with my tradition of getting the most ridiculous burger available after a hike, I had to get the one that had pulled pork, bacon, ham and fried onions on it. I wonder if I consumed more calories than I burned?

In a tent down by the river

Months ago Cristina and I decided to go backpacking over Memorial Day weekend.  We figured that we would have plenty of places to choose from by then, sadly that wasn’t the case. When Memorial Day weekend finally rolled around the snow we had gotten over the winter was still preventing us from getting to our favorite backpacking spots. The plan then shifted to car camping, a weekend full of campfires, playing in a river and s’mores. This also proved to be challenging, finding a car camping spot the week before Memorial Day is not an easy task.  I first checked the national parks and found all their were all fully booked, I then checked the state parks and found the same. It was beginning to seem like we may have to try our luck at snagging a walk in spot when I discovered that King County has a campground, which still had a couple spots available. I never would have guessed that King County had a campground. They were “hike in” spots, with the “hike” being a very flat half a mile long. Although, a hike without an elevation gain is just a stroll in the woods as far as I’m concerned. I booked the site and began digging out  my camping gear for the first time in almost a year. While it wasn’t the backpacking trip we hoped for it would allow me to to test out a few things in preparation for the PCT.

Friday afternoon we drove out to the Tolt MacDonald Campground  on the Snoqualmie River just outside of Carnation.  All the standard sites that did not require a hike to get to looked miserable, very close together with no shade and very little privacy, luckily our site was on the other side of a really cool old suspension bridge away from the crowds.  Since we had fully ditched the idea of “roughing it” in favor of the comforts of car camping we packed a wheelbarrow full of gear, food and firewood and started to make our way to the site.  After crossing the bridge we were greeted by a sign that read “Attention: Frequent bear signings.  I got very excited, I’ve always wanted to meet a bear, but not in the “Grizzly Man” kind of way.

As we “hiked” down the trail, dragging the wheelbarrow behind me I started to wonder why I felt the need to invest in ultralight gear for the PCT when I could just bring a wheelbarrow. Who needs a $300 backpack when you can pick up a wheelbarrow for $50? I already have a tarp to keep everything dry.

Once we arrived at our site we discovered that not only was our site much more shaded and secluded than the sites on the the other side of the bridge. The other 3 campsites in the areas were vacant for the night with campers arriving on Saturday, which was a nice surprise. We set up my not so light my 3 person tent, blew up the air mattress and got settled in. After a bit of exploring, finding the best spot to access the river, we started a fire and made some dinner. Later that evening I proceeded to eat 10,000 s’mores and discovered that s’mores and beards don’t play well together.

The next morning, after it became very clear during the middle of the night that I had forgotten my throw out the air mattress due to the fact that it did not actually hold air, I decided that I needed to invest in a good sleeping pad for the PCT because the ground can be very cold.  Luckily, we did have sleeping pads just in case something like with this happened.  After coffee and breakfast we spent the day doing the typical camping things like relaxing all over the place, playing in the river and reading.  I was reminded how nice it is to disconnect and enjoyed every minute of it.

Later in the day the other campers in the area showed up, the most notable being two families with a total of six small children and one very large Great Dane. Sitting next to the fire we watched as one of the guys made frequent trips up and down the trail hauling wheelbarrows full of stuff and setting up giant tents. The kids took full advantage of the fact that their parents were overwhelmed with getting everything set up, running amok and harassing each other, luckily the crying was minimal. Maybe that’s why I liked camping so much as a kid, my brother and I could get away with much more than normal because our parents were busy managing all the logistics involved in camping with two small boys.  They two families were still working on getting set up as the sun began to set, the air pump was constantly being ran to fill up what seemed like 20 air mattresses. Cristina and I made a game out of counting the number of times the air pump would run and betting on if they were done or not. I think it was completely dark by the time they were finally done.

One of the things I put to the test is wearing what I would wear while hiking the PCT.  This consisted of shorts, a hiking t-shirt and a pair of trail runners. I also had a pair of merino wool leggings and a merino wool hooded shirt for when it got cold at night. While these did a good job of keeping me warm I was reminded that I still needed a puffy jacket, luckily the fire made up for the fact that I didn’t have one. Another thing I put to the test was the claim that merino wool resists odors by wearing the same clothes for the duration of the weekend, luckily for Cristina this claim was in fact true. That night I once again ate 10,000 s’mores.

On Sunday I spent some time exploring the trails in the park a bit. They weren’t anything special but it was nice to get out and stretch my legs a bit. After exploring I spent time relaxing and finally getting around to reading that PCT book I mentioned in my first post.  We considered making the drive to an actual trail to do some hiking but decided we’d rather just  spend the time relaxing, especially considering how busy the trails would be on a holiday weekend.  Later in the day after making a run for firewood, ice and beer we ran into the guy that was making all the trips with the wheelbarrow the night before, he was now making frequent trips in the opposite direction. It seemed that they were defeated by their kids in just one night. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a quote from Varsity Blues. “I don’t want your life.”

After our final night I felt better about a few things I’ll have to deal with while on the PCT. My merino wool clothing kept me warm and didn’t end up smelling after wearing them for days straight, bathing in a river is refreshing, VIA kept me fully caffeinated, I can still sleep on a pad without rolling off of it and I can fuel myself with s’mores.  Ok, I probably wont be making many s’mores on the PCT but snickers bars will be a staple in my diet, my body knows what to do with sugar.  So while it wasn’t the backpacking trip we had hoped for it ended up being really nice to just take a few days to relax together and have a few extra comforts that we wouldn’t have had while backpacking, like s’mores (ok, we could have had s’mores while backpacking).

On our way home we decided to stop by Snoqualmie falls which did not disappoint.  It was however full of people which made me feel a little better about taking the weekend off from hiking. In fact I later read a trip report where a hiker counted 200 cars near a trail head that weekend.  Sometimes it’s best to avoid the crowds, disconnect and relax. 


Backpacking is in tents

Picking out a tent you’re going to spend months living in isn’t a decision one should take lightly, especially when you’ll be facing a plethora of weather conditions and having to set up and tear down your tent almost every day.  Finding the right balance between weight, function and durability can be a difficult one.  There are some really lightweight tents out there but I find myself questioning how well they will hold up on the trail, the last thing you want is for your tent to fail when your days away from civilization in a massive storm.  While I currently have a hand me down 2 person North Face Tent which does the job, is a bit bulky and heavier than I’d like. Plus it’s a bit old, so I don’t know if I trust it.

I considered making weight my top priority, looking at tarps and bivys ,but decided an actual tent would provide me with an extra bit of comfort and sanity that I’ll need while out on the trail. As I started my search  for a new tent my only prerequisites were that it be a 2 person tent and weighs under 3 lbs. While I am in fact only one person I like the idea of  having the extra room a 2 person tent offers, allowing me to either protect my backpack from the elements and critters by keeping it inside the tent, or have enough room for Cristina when she joins up with me to hike some sections.  Here are the tents I’ve taken into consideration:


MSR Carbon Reflex 2  

Nice and light weighing in at 1 lb 13 oz with  zipper free vestibules and dual doors.  It also has a “Fast & Light” configuration where you combine the rain fly with a footprint, cutting 6 ounces of weight when conditions don’t call for a full tent setup. This was my first pick when I began looking for a new tent but the negative comments about the rain fly, comparing it to saran wrap, made me reconsider. There were other comments stating that the materials were prone to punctures and tears, which doesn’t sound like a fun thing to have to deal with. Another point that I realized is that I needed to take into consideration is that the Carbon Reflex 2 is a non-free standing tent, like the North Face tent I currently have. The idea of having a tent that can be completely freestanding is appealing because finding the right area to steak out your tent can be difficult, especially if the ground is hard.  The Carbon Reflex 2 retails for $499.95, which I would gladly pay if I wasn’t so worried about the durability.

MSR FreeLite 2 

Another light MSR tent, heavier than the Carbon Reflex at 2 lbs 7 oz but still well under 3 lbs, and freestanding!! Awesome! Like the Carbon Reflex it has dual doors and a “Fast & Light” configuration which reduces the weight by 7 ounces. I was ready to order (and it was actually ordered by accident) until I  read a review stating that when the rain fly was added the ceiling was lowered by by 4 inches and the walls bowed. Being tall I need all the room I can get, so that was an immediate red flag. Also, it’s not really freestanding! with only one point of contact on one side it needs to be staked down as well. The Freelite 2 is a bit cheaper than the Carbon Reflex at $439.95 but the alleged space issue and my added criteria of a freestanding tent kept me from going through with the purchase.

Mountain Hardware Ghost UL 2 

This tent looks amazing on paper.  2 lbs 9oz , freestanding and 2 person! Unlike the MSR tents the Ghost UL  only has one door, which in itself isn’t a deal breaker. However, I once again lost interest when I read the reviews and saw comments about the tent being fragile. One reviewer stated that the material ripped when it brushed against a rock. Another reviewer called out the fact that the rain fly sags and design flaws which makes it hard to get in and out of. The Ghost UL is priced at $449, the same as the MSR FreeLite 2, but the potential for frustration seems high with this one.


Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2

When Cristina and I went to the PCT class at REI a few months ago the presenters mentioned the popularity of Big Agnes and after taking a closer look I can see why.  The Copper Spur HV UL is freestanding, has 2 doors, and a maximum height of 40 inches!  At 2 lbs 12 oz it’s the heaviest out of the tents I’ve considered but a little extra weight can go a long way.  It has a “4-way high volume hub design” for added strength and some magical “Proprietary random rip-stop pattern nylon” which makes it extremely durable. It also has some nice pockets for keeping things organized. The price is inline with the other tents I considered at $449.95 and at this point is my choice. Let’s see if that remains the case when I go to buy it this weekend.

There are a number of other great 2 person tents which weigh in over my self imposed 3 lb limit, such as the Nemo Dagger 2P and the REI Co-Op Quarter Dome 2 , both of which are cheaper than those above. If you’re looking for a lightweight tent for backpacking I’d take a look at those in particular.

PCT Resources

I am finally moving past drooling over new backpacking gear and starting to dig into the actual planning of my trip on the Pacific Crest Trail.  There are a lot of things to take into account such has how much you can hike in the day, resupplying, rest days  and making sure you know where you’re going.  Luckily there are a lot of resources out there to help you plan your trip and help you while you’re out on the trail.  While I still haven’t read that book I mentioned in my first post I have found a lot useful sites online, here are a few of my favorites:

Pacific Crest Trail Association – The obvious place to start, the groups that preserves and promotes the PCT,.. and issues your permit. Tons of information about the trail, it’s history an the volunteers that support it.  Throw a few bucks their way if you can.

Halfmile’s PCT Maps – The name says it all, maps. Not just any maps but  the most current and accurate PCT maps available. They have maps that you can print (which would take a ton of  paper), GPS downloads, apps for Android and iOS, and  my favorite, a Google Earth map (really, take the time to load it up and check it out, it’s pretty awesome).

Craig’s PCT Planner – A really cool tool that lets you plan out your hike section by section. By just picking your start date, entering your pace and set the hours you want to hike in a day it will generate an itinerary for your journey. It accounts for increased travel time due to elevation gain and allows you to insert rest days into your schedule.

LighterPack –  A nice little tool that lets you track what you will carry with you and manage weight.  It also allows to share your list with others, once I get my list a little more flushed out I’ll be sure to post it here.

Yogi’s PCT Handbook – Not exactly an online resource but still very important. Yogi’s handbook is probably the only PCT planning book you’ll need. It includes tons of tips and advice from people that have hiked the PCT as was  information about the trail itself and the towns it passes through.

PCT Class of 2018 Facebook Group – A great way to connect with others planning on hiking the PCT in 2018, ask questions and help others.

I’m sure there are many more great resources out there that I’ve yet to come across, I’ll be sure to update this post when I find them. I’ll also be adding a dedicated list of resources to the sidebar in the near future.