PCT Day 66 : Escape From Mt Jefferson And The PCT

June 9 (~08:00 – ~22:10)
Forest beyond Three Fingered Jack – Papoose Lake (off-trail) (approx. 17 mi)
Total PCT miles: n/a
Weather: Sunny and warm.

I wake up in the shade of trees, surrounded by snow. I’m no longer on the PCT, but I’m relieved to have made it off that slope last night. While the trail skirts around the mountaintop at high elevation, I’m in the forest below. I’ll have to make it back somehow and check the map, which shows the PCT descending to lower elevation further up. I also notice a stream, Canyon Creek, which runs through the center of the valley I’m in, with a dead-end trail parallel on the other side, connecting up to Wasco Lake, which sits just south of the PCT. I guess I’ve found my way out.

I put on my new waterproof socks for the first time. I picked them up in Portland, even though I know they are not perfect – they get wet with sweat and cause blisters, but I desperately need something to keep my feet warm in the snow, and at least now I have something. When I set off, I walk swiftly on the hardened pack, and find the small but budding creek, but can’t see the trail on the other side. Instead of looking harder, I decide it probably doesn’t exist anymore – it must be unmaintained and overgrown. I stay on my side of the valley, eager to cross the snow, which turns into patches, and then it disappears – replaced by a beautiful meadow, and a huge swamp.

It takes some time to find my way through, my feet happily dry when my shoes sink into the soaking ground, and then I’m surrounded by bushes and small Christmas trees and huge downed trees, an endless slope littered with nature’s garbage. It takes hours to navigate through the mess of dead trees, but the sun shines and I’m happy to be here. It’s a frustrating task but it’s so much better than being stuck in the snow.

When I get closer to Wasco Lake I sit down next to a stream, and to my utter surprise find the trail running just below, in perfect condition. It does exist. I can’t believe I didn’t put more effort into finding it this morning, it may have saved me at least an hour off bushwhacking up and down the hill. After I follow the path past the lakes, I find myself back on the PCT. It’s taken me three hours to get back, and it feels so good to finally be on the PCT again, and for it to be snow-free.

The trail meanders uphill, mostly through a burnt forest with views of Three Fingered Jack behind me. I take an antibiotics pill, to counter effect any possible disease the tick bite from a few weeks ago may have given me, and this time it makes me feel sick. I find a large area where I can rest for a while, until the feeling passes and I continue up.

My excitement for being on a clear path doesn’t last long. Only a few miles later I hit snow on the way to the peak before Rockpile Mountain. Again, the trail skirts around the mountain at high elevation, but this time snow drifts the size of myself have engulfed the trail. It’s so steep I don’t dare walk on top, so I figure I’ll brave the snow and simply walk over the mountain itself, and connect back on the other side.

When I reach the high point, it suddenly doesn’t seem so easy anymore. The drop offs are too steep, and I can’t even locate the trail. The elevation markers made it look like a gradual ascend and descend, but apparently it’s not. I’m stuck, once again. After yesterday, I have no intention of doing anything remotely dangerous – the snow has put a seed of fear in me, and I’m too afraid to risk anything, especially being alone. There are no footsteps in the snow either – those people from yesterday must’ve found another route around.

The only way to get to lower elevation is to head west, and descend down the backside of the mountain. From there I could bushwhack through the valley and connect to Swallow Lake trail, and then either back to the PCT, or I could use it as the first in a link of trails to bail me out of this area, entirely.

The way down starts gradual. There are large patches of snow and there’s some clear ground, and when I get lower there are some unexpected fields of rock to climb across, until I reach the last descend into the valley. It’s a lot more steep than it seemed on the map, and it’s covered in snow. I begin to head down by clambering down the clear patches around the trees, carefully stumbling down stubborn bushes where I do my first glissade across a steep patch of snow. It is long and slow and a little scary but finally, I am below, and safe from everything.

Now I am back in a land of burnt forest, fallen trees everywhere and no path to safe me. I find my own way – from lake to lake, and through fields of lava until I get to Swallow Lake, which leads me to the namesake trail, covered in snow. I decide to leave the snowy PCT mountains for what they are, and navigate through the snow until I hit the Lake Of The Woods trail, which leads further north, and takes me into a hot and exposed area.

Immediately, my hands begin to burn. Another side affect to the antibiotics I’m taking is being more susceptible to sunburn, and it feels as though the heat burns through my hands. I’ve had sun rashes throughout the desert, but they had finally disappeared when I got to cooler weather. Now my fingers are going red again and somehow my nail beds are in a huge amount of pain. I have nothing to protect my hands, and again I wish I had picked up some sun gloves, after all.

Unfortunately the trail conditions worsen. The easy, level path is suddenly covered in downed trees, and I lose the trail, having to climb over endless trunks. When I find the trail again it begins a sidle up a mountain, and here the path is littered with fallen trees, but this time they are enormous. I have to crawl over or find a way to pass by climbing up or down the hill, and getting across each tree takes up a huge amount of time. It’s exhausting and long winded, but despite all my bad luck, what I don’t expect to see when I get higher in elevation, is snow.

I’d wanted to set up camp early today. I’m exhausted from trudging through the snow yesterday, from the bushwhacking, from being afraid. It’s already much too late. But I still can’t set up. It’s beginning to get dark, I have no water and the trail is covered in snow drifts. There’s a lake perhaps a mile and a half away, and I decide I need to try and make it there. But it’s not so straight forward. The snow is steep, and at times I loose the trail, I climb into the bushes only to climb out again, and it’s exhausting and unsettling in the increasing dark. I think I’ll never reach the lake, but by the time I do I can barely recognise anything with my headlamp, and what I think is the lake, is a frightening black hole behind me. I set up quickly, and hope I don’t get swallowed alive during the night.

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