June 8 (~10:30 – ~21:30)
Highway 20 / Santiam Pass (mi 2000.9) – forest beyond Three Fingered Jack (off-trail) (7.9 mi / Total: 2008.8 mi)
Total PCT miles: 908.8
Weather: Sunny and fresh during the day.
I wake up to a thin, wet layer of snow on the ground. Thick dew blankets the needles of the Christmas trees around me, and it’s cold, so I stay inside and wait. When the sun comes out it starts to warm, and when I finally leave the tent, the snow is gone, and the trees glisten in the new sun. This is what I was waiting for.
I leave my charming hiding spot for the night and follow the trail through the burnt forest. Despite the black trees, everything looks fresh and colourful and the views onto the distant mountain and nearby lakes are splendid. Then the snow starts. A thin coating on the path, a vivid accent more than anything.
I know this isn’t the real snow – the snow the snow map warmed me for, and it doesn’t take long for the real thing to appear. Around noon I’ve hit the edge of it, and a thick pack of snow begins, with no end in sight. I put on my microspikes. Here we go. The snow is thrown into the forest in heaps, but I can walk on top of it, and there are some footsteps to follow.
When I notice two hikers in the distance, the footsteps split. The couple is following what is trying to be the actual trail, a large switchback in the opposite direction that makes an angular shift up, and the remaining footsteps try a more direct approach to the uphill path. I decide to follow the safe route, the switchback, but it doesn’t take long to grow frustrated with it. The footsteps go downhill instead of up, it’s not a well carved route that matches the GPS. So I go back, and try what I hope is the direct route. It’s only a guess – this is a popular hiking area, and the footsteps could be going anywhere. These people may not be hiking the PCT at all.
It begins all right. The general direction makes sense, and soon I am climbing up the snow drifts and getting higher up on the hillside, wondering if this trail will ever lead me back to the PCT. I see jagged rocks above me, and I know I need to be on the other side of them, and the footsteps try to curve around, climbing higher and higher, and then I’m pulling myself up on rocks and I wonder what I’m doing. This isn’t right. But now I’ve come so far I can’t turn back. I know the PCT is up there, but mountainsides too steep to hike are in my way, and then the footsteps thin into different directions and disappear. What is happening? I have to find my own way to the trail, and I climb up, through steep snow and rocks and then I’m back on the PCT. Suddenly.
I’m back to following footsteps again and it feels good not to be in this on my own. The steps sidle along the mountain but then they move away – off into the trees, while the trail is supposed to continue through an exposed slope, and then follow the curve of the mountain at the same elevation, below the rugged crags of the Three Fingered Jack, an imposing rocky peak.
Now there are no footsteps to follow, and skirting around the mountain would be an exhausting affair, having to trailblaze and kick in the first steps. I decide to descend into the valley instead, and head for the trees below which turns into a huge field of snow, which I cross without any issues. I take a break once I’ve hit a bare spot with big rocks, let my feet warm up and dry my socks and shoes a little in the sun. It’s already after 4 and it’s my first break. Snow has no mercy.
Then two people appear, following my footsteps towards me. They are the couple I’d seen ahead of me, and the man says they will try and stay at low elevation to get around the mountain, and then they are off, moving even further away from the PCT. I decide on the opposite, and want to get back to the trail. I return to the forest, but get stuck in the steep snow drifts thrown against the thickening of trees and I fruitlessly climb up and down, every angle to steep for comfort.
When I make it out I face a field covered in fallen trees. I reach the backside, where the ground has little snow, and I decide to climb back up to the PCT, to where it skirts around the mountain. It’s steep – much steeper than I’d though standing at the bottom, and I’m pulling myself up on tree branches, trying to get higher and higher, digging steps into the snow, until I finally get to the trail again – or what should be the trail. There are no footsteps, and I seem to be the first to carve them into this steep slope.
As I get closer to the pass the trail is visible again, and I’m relieved to have this behind me, until I get to the other side. The mountain is obliterated by fields of snow, and a huge drift has formed against the ridge. I’m surprised I manage to find my way through, and it’s actually not as steep as I feared. Once I’m across the plains of snow, I plough through the thick hilly drifts on top of the path, until the trail passes beyond the Three Fingered Jack, moves across to the other side of the mountain, and this is when everything stops.
It’s after 7. The Three Fingered Jack is a menace behind me, and the trail skirts around the backside of the next peak, which is topped by a precarious collection of rocks. I can just about make out the start of the trail, which is covered by a thick pack of pristine snow. No one has been here before, or if they have, there’s no trace left of them.
I decide to climb over the exposed rocks just above the snowy path, which turns into a rather frightening endeavour, balancing myself high above the slope, the rocks unstable and shaky. It’s only a few meters, then the trail is buried completely, and I’m looking out over the steepest slope I’ve seen so far. By now I can’t go back – there’s snow for miles and that rocky traverse was well beyond my comfort zone. I try and distinguish where I’ll need to sidle to. The trail actually moves down some switchbacks, but they are nowhere to be seen, and all I can do is kick in steps in a slightly downward fashion.
And I go. I look at the forest far below, down the steep slope, and tell myself not to look down. Don’t look down, don’t look down. I kick in the first steps. Three hard kicks, then check for grip, move my two poles, and kick in the next step, just in front of the other. I look down, don’t look down. Just as I take a step forward my other foot slips and I fall backwards, but I’m okay, I’m still on the trail. I push myself up and look back at where I came from, and where I need to go. It’s going too slow, it’s too far. I try and ignore the fact that I’m shaking, I’m physically shaking with fear, and I focus on just that one next step – three kicks, grip, poles and the next foot. Over and over and over.
It takes about an hour to progress perhaps 0.1 mile, and here I can see a few rocks from the trail through the snow. For a moment I think I’ve made it through the worst but the snow returns, and my shaking hands grip my poles and keep going. Another step, another step, barely a foot of progress with each step. I begin to wish I’d actually slip and fall down the mountain because at least I’d get to the bottom, be off this mountain slope, and then I look ahead and the snow just won’t stop. It’s after 8 and it’s getting dark. I’m alone and I’m petrified. The slope seems to just get steeper. There’s no way in the world I’m going to make it to the other side of the mountain. My only option is to go down. Away from the trail, down into the forest.
Going down the steep hill is only marginally less frightening than sidling along it, and I feel huge relief when I get low enough that the grade decreases. Then I’m down, in a snow covered forest and I begin to rush along to find a place to sleep. There are some bare spots around trees but they are all slanted, and I run, run, put on my headlight and keep on going, not that one, not that one, until I find a somewhat flat spot and set up straight away. I have no idea what I’ll do tomorrow but I made it off the mountain. I’m safe.