PCT Day 67 : Off Limits And Off Trail

June 10 (~08:45 – ~17:30)
Papoose Lake (off-trail) – tentsite before Whitewater Creek Trail junction (approx. 10 mi / Total: 2032.5 mi)
Total PCT miles: 932.5
Weather: Sunny and warm.

I’m nervous. After a day of bushwhacking, I’m still off the PCT and I need to decide if I’ll get back to it, or not. I’m at Papoose Lake, a beautiful sight in daylight, which is close to the junction where I’ll need to choose between heading back to the PCT or descend into the Hunts Cove / Pamelia Lake limited entry zones.

My feet are painful. The snow is tiring to walk on and one of them is rubbed raw from either the waterproof socks or the merino wool Darn Tough socks I wear in a fruitless attempt to stay warm in the snow. At least it’s another sunny day, and in the morning the snowpack is still relatively hard, and it’s easier to walk on. The snow is melting fast though, and rivers have formed in between and underneath thick patches. At times I wonder if I’m walking on top of a lake, but I never am.

When I reach the junction it’s just as covered in snow as everywhere else. The trail to the right would lead back to the PCT, a mile away, which in turn will be snowed in for many more. A signpost warns for the trail to the left, the one I’m about to take, warning hikers they require a permit to enter. I haven’t had any reception to go online to see if I could get one, so I’ll have to enter without, risking a $200 fine. Although I don’t like the feeling of entering an area I’m not supposed to, I’d rather pay a fine than spend the rest of the day terrified, or possibly die.

I follow the snowpacked ridge until I’ve located where the trail descends into a valley via a multitude of switchbacks. I’ve dreaded this moment – even though I’m trying to bail out of the PCT, I can’t even get out without facing more uncomfortable snow conditions. I stand at the top of the trail and look down. Jefferson looms right ahead of me. The slope is covered in snow drifts and they’re steep, very steep. It’s a long way down, and there’s no trail to follow. I turn around – I’m shaking again. I can’t do this. I look down again. Maybe I can, no, maybe I have to. I sit down and eat a Clif bar and try and calm down and think. The way back to the PCT will have a lot more snow than this, and the PCT itself could be even scarier. I have to do it. I have to descend this slope.

I put my fears aside and plan a route down. I decide to use the bare spots around the trees again. I try the one closest to the top, scramble down some rocks and get stuck. The rocks are too big, and the snow too thick to climb back on. I go back up, squeeze through the trees, and crawl towards the next clear batch. I cross the snow, climb down alongside trees holding onto small bushes. The mountainside is steep, then a little less steep, then too steep again. The snow rolls, creates solid fields, evens out again. It takes almost two hours, and then I’m down, walking on an actual trail. I’ve made it. I’m out of the snow and I’m on a perfectly clear footpath in a limited entry area.

The trail is beautiful. It’s well maintained, sunny, the trees are huge and covered in moss and the Pamelia Lake is stunning with some gorgeous tent spots. I’m the only hiker there, and I’m relieved not to run into any rangers, so I don’t have to explain myself. After the lake, I decide to link back to the PCT. The trail curves around Mt Jefferson, and while the path south and north are covered in snow, the western side is actually clear.

It’s around lunch time when I get back on the PCT. Only just after I spotted the very few hikers in the limited entry area. I continue along the trail, moving around that snowy peak, and into the forest. It’s time for another choice. Do I stay on the PCT and hike the snowy northern side of Jefferson, or bail out? Now that I’m no longer in the snow I almost forget how thoroughly horrible it is, but then I hit a few old, deserted patches, and I instantly remember my fears from the past few days – I can’t. Although the trail on the north side looks less problematic on the map, there’s no way of actually knowing what it’s like, and I just can’t risk it. I’m done with the snow.

So I decide to leave the PCT once more. I think about taking the Woodpecker Ridge to a trailhead and hitch around, but I’d never be able to come back and hike this missing section. I decide to stay on the PCT for another three miles, around the point where the snow is supposed to start again, and take the Whitewater Creek trail out. I’d be walking 22 miles to bypass less than 12. It would be a long detour along a number of roads and trails. But I won’t be in the snow.

In the afternoon I hike the remaining miles through the burnt land at the foot of Mt Jefferson. It’s an odd place, and I camp next to a steam before the junction. It’s the first time in days that I’ve set up in daylight, and it feels good to be able to relax for a few hours. Everything around me is black, and I set up my tent on the perfectly flat ground, until I realise the real tent spots are further back, on a raised area overlooking the mountains. There’s even some phone signal there. I grab my stuff and pitch my tent in the new spot, and I rinse my clothes in the stream. My fingers hurt from the cold water, but it feel good to clean, to do something for myself. I hang everything in the trees to dry, the late afternoon sun still strong. When it sets it illuminates the mountains in orange, and I watch from inside my tent, keeping the rainfly open until the last light fades.

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