Here we are, sitting in Seattle waiting for snow to melt. We decided two days ago that the only way to really tell what the conditions were like up on the Pacific Crest Trail was to go take a look for ourselves. Dirt Stew and I decided to spend the time to drive up to Rainy Pass (5476ft) and hike northward on the Pacific Crest Trail where the elevation climbs up fast. We got to Rainy Pass in the early evening, and found that the parking lots were still mostly covered in snow.
We decided to set up camp in the middle of the snow covered parking lot to test out our camping on snow regime. It was not a very cold night, but the cold snow from beneath us could be felt through our thin Thermarests, so we added a few pieces of foam pad to keep warm. It worked.
The next day we packed up and headed north. The trail was mostly snow-free for the first few miles.
Water was everywhere from the melting snow. There were a few icy cold stream crossings, and since our feet were already getting wet, we kept our shoes on to ford them. The trail darted in and out of snow, and at times we started to lose the trail, trying to follow footprints to keep on track. Eventually, the trail disappeared completely, and although we kept finding footprints to follow, they started diverging.
Time to check the map. We were going in the right direction up to Cutthroat pass. The snow was solid, and we were finding it quite easy to walk on top of it just in sneakers, but we decided to put on our crampons to see how much easier that would make things. Also we were climbing above tree line, and the ridge was getting quite steep, so we took out our ice axes.
We found a set of very fresh foot prints and started to follow them up. Going over Cutthroat Pass, we kept following the footprints to the other side, where we came across a large group of people with big packs, ice axes, and helmets. “Thanks for the footprints to follow!” I remarked. “Just the blind leading the blind” one girl replied. It turns out they were an Outward Bound group already out for 9 days, and learning off-trail navigation. They told us they had spent a cold and windy night on top of the Pass. They were headed for Cutthroat Lake– not on the PCT.
We decided to follow our footsteps back a little bit to find the trail again. We needed to find a way over to Granite Pass, but where the trail was supposed to go around an outcropping, there was a large cornice in the way. The only way around would be to go down hill and find a around. We sat and talked about how crazy that group was for camping at the top of the Pass, and studied the map for a while. Soon I realized my feet were getting numb. We decided that we didn’t feel like going further, and this was probably a good place to turn around.
On the way back, the snow had softened, and even with crampons on, our feet kept slipping out from under us. The fairly easy traverses seemed slightly more dangerous, so I kept a firm grip on my ice axe. Several times we fell, but caught ourselves straight away. It didn’t seem at any point like we would actually go sliding down the mountain; I never felt in fear of my life. As we kept going down the mountain, we got below the tree-line, and the snow was less deep. The melting snow had created many snow bridges, and since the snow was now very soft, we started post-holing. I got to a stream that had 6 or 8 feet of snow above it, and I probed the snow bridge with my pole. I had taken the basket off my pole so that I could better use it as a probe. It looked like the snow would hold up for me. I took a step, and my leg fell right through it into nothingness. My foot hadn’t even hit anything and was just dangling down the hole. I flattened my body against the rest of the snow bridge and climbed out. I was surprised Dirt Stew hadn’t said anything behind me. I looked back to see his back turned towards me. He was peeing. “I just fell through the snow!! Pay attention if I’m doing something dangerous!” I barked. My emotions were running high as my legs were feeling a bit shaky. We made it down the rest of the trail without incident.
Back at the parking lot, we saw a few useful signs warning PCT hikers about washouts north of Harts Pass.
We decided to drive to Mazama and check out Goat’s Beard outfitter and the store in case we had to stop there on our hike. The folks there were very kind to us, and told us that we were right on the edge of being able to hike given the recent snow melt. They told us that every year people come almost a month too early to try to hike the PCT not knowing that conditions are really are too treacherous, only to be turned around a couple miles in.
We headed back to Seattle with a decent sense of what we wanted to do. Even if the snow was not as bad as it was a few weeks ago, it was still risky to go through it. Post-holing into a sharp branch or rock could mean a severe injury, which would kick us off trail before we had even started. We’re up for something difficult; we’re up for something challenging, but we’re not up for something dangerous. We do want to start hiking on July 1st, or as soon after as possible, so after studying a map of the surrounding area, we came up with a plan. We could still hike from Canada to Mexico, but avoid the trail north of Hart’s Pass by hiking on another trail at lower elevation by Ross Lake. To join back up with the PCT south of Ross Lake, we can take the Thunder Creek Trail down to Park Creek, where the old road goes to Bridge Creek to meet up with the PCT. The only high elevation snow covered section will be Park Creek Pass. The mileage for this alternate will be almost identical to taking the Pacific Crest trail, if not a couple miles longer.
Although we were torn about missing this small section of the Pacific Crest Trail (since we will miss a beautiful section of trail and the monument at the border) we do believe we’re making the right choice. Someday we will be back to hike it in a better season. Anyone else considering starting a southbound hike in the next couple of days should perhaps consider this alternative.