Home Pacific Crest Trail PCT: Smoky Day

PCT: Smoky Day

by Lisa

Day 14
Glacier Pass to Pasayten Wilderness Camp – 15 miles

Hiking in thick smoke sucks, especially through one of the more scenic sections.

Thankfully my day didn’t start out smoky. I woke up in the flat and forested Glacier Pass to find that a couple of the guys had already packed up and rolled on. The other three were still in their tents, taking a bit more time to rest before tackling the trail. My morning routine was well established by this point and I was hitting the trail within about 45 minutes of waking up.

Azurite Peak and Mt Ballard

I had a big climb to start off – 1100 feet in about 2 miles. I’ve realised that the trail builders tried to keep any steep section on the PCT to a maximum of 500 feet over a mile, which is a bit less than a 10% grade. This is a relatively comfortable grade for the human body and my legs had gotten quite accustomed to that type of climb.

I had about 20 switchbacks to contend with along a lightly treed trail. The open area of the upper slope offered great views of Azurite Peak and Mt Ballard across the valley. Thankfully the climb was on the west side of the ridge which meant I was shaded from the morning sun.

I topped out on the ridge within an hour. Sadly instead of fantastic views of the peaks to the east I was met with a thick wall of smoke. It was also getting to be very warm and very humid, with no breeze to speak of. I was in for a challenging morning.

Looking north along the ridge

I hiked along the top of ridge line, then crossed over to the east side and continued below a couple unnamed peaks. There was a small spring in a really nice basin below the peaks where I stopped and refilled my bottles, plus drank quite a bit. I wouldn’t cross water again for another 6 miles.

I continued along the trail and soon realised that I was feeling the effects of the smoke. I could feel the minute particle matter affecting my respiration – my throat was getting sore and my sinuses were clogging. My mom, being a health nurse, had sent along a specialized mask for me to wear in case of just this situation. I pulled it on sending warm thoughts homeward. It was hot under the mask, especially on the uphills. When it got too hot to bear I switched it out for my damp bandana, and then went back to the mask when I cooled down a bit. I endured it knowing that my mom would be both relieved and proud of me.

Wearing a special respirator mask in smoky conditions

Looking ahead along the trail

Even with the smoke, the mask and the heat, I was still able to enjoy the trail. It was a fantastic trek along a curving collection of peaks and ridges. There were a few spots where I was right on top of the ridge with the slopes falling off steeply to either side.

The trail cut east for a couple miles then turned back north. I was welcomed by the sight of extensively burned forest. This area had been hit hard by wildfires over the past few years.

Hiking through burnt forest

A couple more miles onward I reached Harts Pass, a remote campground and forest service outpost reached by driving Forest Road 5400, the highest road in Washington and also considered one of the most dangerous. I made it there just before noon, having hiked 10 miles in the morning.

There were a few thru-hikers at the road who’d been to the Canadian border and then hiked back south instead of crossing through to Canada. They were waiting for a ride down to the highway and onward to civilization. They weren’t entirely done their trail, having jumped past northern California due to a number of large wildfires. I sat and chatted with them for a while then crossed the road and continued on a short way to reach a stream crossing. I could finally enjoy some fresh water! There wasn’t much of anywhere to sit beside the stream so I loaded up on water and then walked another mile to a nice spot amongst some larches where I could enjoy my lunch break.

Slate Peak Lookout

The view south from near Slate Peak

While at Hart’s Pass I’d noticed that there was significantly less smoke to the north. It seemed the high ridges or the wind were keeping it away. It was a relief to think that I’d be breathing cleaner air ahead.

I only had four miles to hike in the afternoon with no significant elevation changes. The trail took me under the historic Slate Peak Lookout, and then curved around and through a couple lovely alpine bowls, always staying near the top of the ridge. About half a mile before camp I crossed into the Pasayten Wilderness which preserves over half a million acres of remote and rugged wilderness. I’d only see about 40 miles of it as I made my way to Canada.

Clearer skies as the trail winds along the ridge

Welcome to the Pasayten Wilderness!

I reached my chosen camp under Tamarack Peak a bit before 4 o’clock. There were quite a few people around and I still had energy to burn. I thought I might find a nice spot to lay out my tarp, take a break, then push on another mile or so to the next water source. I meandered towards one of the campsites to find it occupied… by my Hawaiian hiking friends! I was absolutely stunned and delighted to see them. Of course I was curious how they had gotten ahead of me. When I left them before Rainy Pass I knew they were going to be met by a friend at the highway and spend a couple nights at a front country campground. I’d said my goodbyes assuming I wouldn’t see them again. It was so smoky in the valley that they decided to skip the first 30 miles of trail, drive up to Harts Pass, camp there, and then hop on the PCT.

It was really nice to be reunited with the closest thing to a trail family that I’d had. I set up my tent amongst theirs and was even invited to share in “cocktail hour” (for which they provided the booze!) It had been a challenging day but it ended on the right note.



Mike September 20, 2018 - 11:30 pm

I had plans to be on this section in the first week of September. I opted for the Sunshine Coast trail in BC instead. How many days did you take from Rainy Pass to Manning Park.

West Coast Hiker Girl September 26, 2018 - 8:22 am

The Sunshine Coast trail is near the top of my hiking list for next year. It took me 6 days to go from Rainy Pass to Manning Park.


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