In which I get my butt kicked on my first backpacking trip of the season.
Before heading out for my PCT section hikes last year I did a ton of training. I worked out at the gym regularly, swam at the local pool, and did near-daily yoga. Plus I’d hiked 90 miles from January to June, including a couple overnight trips. I was in great shape for getting going on my adventure.
This year has been different. Due to illness, scheduling, and crappy weather I’ve managed to hike about half the miles of last year. I also haven’t been doing much training at home other than trying to walk a mile or two every day. Long trail hikers plan shakedown hikes – a one or two night trip to test gear and physical & mental fitness. I knew I needed to get out and see how I was feeling before I hiked a 16-day section of the PCT starting the end of July.
I decided to head to E.C. Manning Provincial Park. It only takes a little over two hours to get there and snow usually melts out a bit earlier there than in the North Cascades of Washington. My original plan seemed reasonable. I was hoping to hike 7.5 miles out along a ridge line to a designated campsite, spend the night, hike back to the trailhead, hike 4 miles to another campsite that afternoon, then summit a nearby peak and hike out the last day. It would have meant hiking 30 miles over 3 days. I would’ve easily pulled this off last summer.
So off I went! Manning Park’s base elevation is around 4000 feet. My trailhead was at 4500 feet and I had to climb to 6000 feet in about 3.5 miles. I could do this! The first section of trail was a steady climb through forest. Just as the boredom was starting to set in, the terrain opened up into wet meadows and then climbed up and over a dry ridge. On the other side of the ridge I was treated to views of my route – Snow Camp Mountain and Lone Goat Peak.
Not too much further along I saw a bear just off the trail and about 100 feet ahead! A beautiful shiny-coated black bear nibbling on fresh greens! Unfortunately he saw me about the same time I saw him. I decided it wasn’t wise to take the time to grab a photo so instead I raised my arms and poles and yelled loudly at him. He ran/stumbled down the hill as fast as his big paws could take him! It was actually my first interaction with a bear while out hiking solo. My only other bear encounter was in Yosemite National Park (which you can read about here.) I felt pretty damn proud of myself and my bear-scaring.
I moved a bit easier and quicker after that excitement. Soon enough I reached a junction with the East Skyline Trail at 3.7 miles. I stopped for lunch and to enjoy the incredible views of the valley and peaks before me.
Turns out, that was the easy part of the trail. After lunch the trail switchbacked steeply down 400 feet into Despair Pass. Unfortunately I did feel a bit of despair as I realised that there wasn’t any stream crossing in the thick forest. In my usual PCT-hiker mode I’d only carried 1L of water from the trailhead. I needed a refill soon.
The next mile was a steady climb up towards Snow Camp Mountain. I was soon above the tree line and enjoying the epic views surrounding me. I took the short spur trail towards the Snow Camp Mountain summit. Before heading up, I took a break to melt some snow and refill my water bottle. Boy was I ever glad to see snow! The summit itself was fantastic. It was rounded over and above the trees, allowing for 360 views. It was also my high point of the trail at 6496 feet.
I’d really forgotten how brutal ridge line hikes can be. Not only was I dealing with much higher elevation than my body was used to, but I had to contend with lots of changes in elevation. I dropped down from Snow Camp Mountain and into a saddle, then slowly climbed up to the base of Lone Goat Peak. The elevation, the heat and the humidity of the afternoon, and the extra weight on my back was starting to get to me. I’d hike for a few minutes, then stop to catch my breath again.
Just before reaching the shoulder of Lone Goat Peak I crossed a wide avalanche chute. A couple hundred feet below me I spotted another bear! This one was far enough away and very much minding his own business so I took some time to watch and photograph him. He’s the brown dot in the middle of the green in the photo to the right.
I was glad to reach the shoulder. I was only a mile and a half away from camp, and all downhill. I also had some of the best views of Hozomeen Peak, a few miles across the valley from me.
I started my descent. I crossed a couple nice streams and was sure that the campground must be right around the next turn. But it wasn’t. Nor around the turn after that. Or the one after that. I descended over 800 feet before finally arriving at my campground in a small meadow in another saddle. I had been on trail for a little over 5 hours. I was exhausted and partly dehydrated.
The campground was really unremarkable. A few dirt sites for tents, an outhouse, a bear locker, and a fire pit. The water source was a small creek in the meadow and there were lots of bugs. I sprayed myself down with DEET (not usually my first choice) and took a breather for water and a snack. I checked my Garmin InReach device and realised I’d never started tracking! I’d had it on the whole time, but my husband must have been wondering if I was actually going anywhere. I also hadn’t re-downloaded the syncing app to my phone, which meant I had to write him an explanatory message the slow way with the point and click alphabet on the tiny non-touch-screen.
Next I had to unpack and set up camp. It seemed that I couldn’t remember how to set up my tent. It’s a bit of an oblong shape with a shorter peak and a longer peak. First I got the poles on the wrong ends, then I realised I had the footprint turned around. Then I had to flip the fly around. Sheesh! I finally got it all set up and treated myself to a bit of a lay down on my cozy backcountry bed.
One thing I’d done right was remembering to put some water into my home-made dehydrated meal at lunchtime. It was really quick to cook the ramen and heat up the mushroom & TVP sauce to go with it. As I ate my dinner I contemplated what I should do the next day. I realised that I couldn’t continue with my original plan, but I still wanted to push myself a bit. Looking at my map I noticed a trail heading out along Hozomeen Ridge. I decided I’d hike a mile or so of that in the morning. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough food to stay a second night at camp so I’d have to hike back to the car in the afternoon. It would still be a good test hiking a full 10-mile day.
I had a quiet hour or so to myself before another group came into camp. It was a group of three women who met while hiking a dozen years ago. I ended up sitting out with them while they set up camp and made their dinner. I was rewarded for my social efforts with a cookie.
The next morning we had breakfast together and were visited by a lovely young buck. He stood and watched us for a bit before hopping off along the trail. The four of us headed out together to hike Hozomeen Ridge. It was nice to carry a light daypack and to have others to chat with. I went with them as far as a high point about halfway along the ridge. We had great views of Mount Hozomeen ahead. As much as I wanted to continue, I had to say my goodbyes and turn back. They ventured onwards to complete the last mile of the ridge right below the north summit of the mountain.
Within an hour I was back at camp and packing up my gear. I really didn’t want to carry any extra water on my back so I downed a good half-litre with a hydration tablet before hitting the trail. I had already had much more to drink than the day before. Plus, even though it was hot out, it wasn’t humid, which somehow made it easier.
I climbed pretty steadily through the 800 feet back to the shoulder of Lone Goat Peak. After that it was the hot, exposed, and challenging ups and downs along the ridge back past Snow Camp Mountain to the trail junction.
Did I mention my boots don’t fit anymore? I had noticed it on my hike in, but it hadn’t been much of a problem. However my feet had swollen from the day before, which is pretty common with multiple days on trail. Thankfully I wear really great liner socks so I hadn’t blistered, but boy were my toes crammed in. By the time I had climbed up to the junction I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I was not in the shape I’d hoped I’d be in. I still had 3.5 miles to go, and most of it would be a toe-numbing downhill slope.
Backpacking is a mental game as much as it is a physical one. Here I was being put to the test. This point would’ve been a great moment to put on a podcast, or play some music. But I’d reset my phone a week or so ago and didn’t have any music or podcasts downloaded. What else could I do but keep moving? One foot in front of the other, with a song on repeat in my brain. There were cheezies waiting for me as a reward, as well as a foot soak in Lightning Lake.
About halfway down I had a great idea. The last half-mile of trail is on a wide flat track. I’d get my boots off and walk the rest of the way in my Xero trail sandals (which are amazing, by the way!) So that’s exactly what I did. I sat down in the middle of the trail to change my shoes, then carried my boots the rest of the way back to the car.
Later on listening to one of my favourite hiking podcasts I was given a bit of perspective on my hike. Backpacker Radio was featuring some stories from their AT trail correspondents. One of them shared these wise words:
“It’s not the hike you expected but it’s the hike you’ve been given”
I’d been expecting an easier hike, but then I wouldn’t have been challenging myself. Instead I was given a hike that I could learn from. I learned that I need to slow down a bit and that I should plan for fewer miles to start out. I learned that listening to music or podcasts is sometimes really helpful. I learned that I can scare a black bear away all by myself. I learned that I need to check all of my tech and practice with it at the beginning of each season. I learned that I should make a list of my gear so I don’t forget something. I learned that I really can make my feet bigger and more stable with yoga foot work. I learned that I need to carry extra water when hiking on ridges. I learned that it’s okay to hike in sandals. I learned that I like having other people in camp with me. I learned that a change in plans can be helpful.
It wasn’t the hike I’d expected, but it was still a fantastic trip out and I’d do it all over in a second.