Wednesday, February 02, 2011

HCRHST: Day 4 - Wyeth to the PCT

HCRHST stands for the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. My son and I are attempting his first end-to-end which turned out to be about 90 miles. For pictures and back story check out these links: Getting Ready, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Pictures, and Progress.

The day away from Wyeth began quite well. We were up before the sun, had camp taken down before dawn and the snow had all but melted. Things were looking great other than a few rather water logged pools inside the tent which we hadn't seen before. I attributed this to the entire night of rain and large amounts of snow melt, but kept an eye on it. After another couple nights I began to watch where the water was coming in and it appears the undercoating on our tent has finally decided to bite the dust. After this trip, it is now relegated to backyard usage.

The majority of the morning from Wyeth was on flat-ish terrain and with no rainy weather, so we were pounding miles fast. We were paralleling the Columbia with relatively no elevation change in weather that was down right balmy feeling in the high forties. The pine trees had left us and we could actually see evergreens.

Wind mountain across the Columbia River. The foothills of the Cascades are outcroppings of small rounded mountains. Rather than a gradual ascent, they are more like small training runs before actually getting to the big stuff.

The ascent started to hit, and with it the scree slopes began to become the norm. Most of the snow had melted off by this point, but that only meant large quantities of water blowing out footbridges. The Barracuda hadn't had much experience with river crossings before this and quickly began to learn how to be confident, but swift of foot with the current.

The Barracuda's first river crossing. The bridge was completely blown and all we could see of it were a few 2x4's sticking up out of the water. He did well, and only fell into the water once the entire trip.

Due to the anabatic and katabatic winds of the Gorge, around early to mid morning you begin to walk through significant cloudline a bit lower than one would expect. The eerie cold air and decreased visibility bother some as they are not used to the fog sweeping in so quickly. The Barracuda and I personally find them quite enchanting and he commented that they reminded him of something out of The Chronicals of Narnia. I personally find them of the feel more like Tolkien's books, but either way, they give quite a mystical edge to any hike.

The Barracuda really liked watching the ecosystems change, first from the dry arid climate of the rainshadow to the damp evergreens, and then as we climbed to the barren scree slopes and towering basalt monoliths.

As we climbed, the spotty patches of snow became much more frequent and I took over the lead. The rocks seems to be mainly clear, but the trail was a great bench to collect any snow which had fallen from the above slopes. Crampons weren't needed (yet), but several times we were cautious and I was kicking steps. About three slopes in, the trail became completely obscured with icy snow and any steps which were kicked were significantly shallower than before. I ventured across, instructing The Barracuda to smash his heels down as hard as possible before planting his toes. Almost the entire way across I hear a scream from behind me and realize he has slipped. Up until this point, I hadn't properly known parental panic.

I quickly leaped out of the snow, ditched my pack and turned only to find him breathing heavily with a stick plunged into the ground. He had self arrested with the stick he was carrying and saved himself from a very disastrous and nasty slope. Sometimes all I can do is stare in awe of my child. He continues to be cooler than I have ever been. He had correctly flipped, rolled and plunged the stick he was carrying into the snow and then clung to it successfully all in a matter of seconds. We had discussed self arresting at home, as well as had him handle his father's ice axe, but we have never actually practiced figuring he was too young.

His face accurately illustrates the level of panic both of us were feeling. This was quickly shifted to excitement at his ability to keep his head and self arrest successfully. The picture was taken as he was calming down so I could come back out and drag him by his pack to safety.

After this eventful happening, it was all pretty smooth sailing. We covered ground quickly, but carefully and after a series of rise, fall and plateaus we found ourselves above cloudline and walking ridges before heading back down to sea level.

This hike showed me just how much I love The Gorge and the Cascades in the winter. My hiking experience was very limited this time of year as much of the hiking is rather unpredictable. However, it is far more beautiful.

Once the trail went back down, miles began flying even faster. We were getting hungry and had put in a good 7 miles on only our Luna bar breakfast. We couldn't stop yet, though. Not only was the trail not level enough to cook, but we had preset a trail intersection to be our break point and we weren't there yet. Occasionally when hiking we will take 2 or 3 minute breaks to have a drink and rest packs for a bit, but the only actual stopping place we have during our day is lunch. We eat for somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes and then hit the trail again until camp and dinner. Until we hit our stopping point we don't break, period.

The Barracuda is very keen on the fact that he doesn't get to whine and he doesn't get to stop. He has flat out been told he can, but that we are not going to. If he wants to stop, okay, but then he has to hike double fast to move the miles he has lost. This is not as preferable as keeping up. He has also found incredibly great ways to navigate distance through this. As we were descending, he realized he could see the exit signs on the Interstate if he used his monocule and this would give him an exact location that we were in. From that, he could see how much farther we had to go. Food is my son's best motivator.

Sometimes this investigating took him a bit off trail and up a rise or two, but he considered it worth it.

The map we had was chosen for a couple of reasons: 1) it was waterproof and a weird form of synthetic rip resistant plastic, 2) it seemed to contain a lot of good information quite well, and 3)it most importantly had both sides of the Cascades and covered the entire distance. I, for some reason, did not think about the fact that if it covered a long distance it wouldn't be as accurate in the specifics. At our trail intersection, there were supposed to be 5 trails which came together, and then a short jaunt till we hit our alternate connecting trail to the PCT. That didn't exactly happen. We ate and tried to orient ourselves. That should read, I tried to orient myself and failed a bit miserably. My visual spacial skills leave quite a bit to be desired. A trail was picked, and we headed off.

The connecting trail was supposed to be less than a mile by the look of things, but the map had been off by as much as a mile and a half in the past. We kept walking, kept talking, kept seeing great things.
This unnamed waterfall just plunged off the trail. It wasn't on the map, it just was there and HUGE. Water was filtered and The Barracuda threw in a few rocks.

The trail seemed to be taking forever and it was getting to be around 3 o'clock. We had maybe an hour or so of decent daylight left. Where was this stinking connector trail, or any trail. Then came the sign. Mark O Hatfield Wilderness, it read. Then came the cussing. Lots and lots of cussing. We had hiked a good 2 miles the wrong way. With darkness approaching we began to run back. I took The Barracuda's pack because he was having trouble and we raced to get back to the intersection. Once arrived, he took over the navigating. Unfortunately, the map was just plain unclear. We knew the trail we had come from, the wrong turn we had taken, but no other trail seemed to make sense. Time was clicking down.

We chose another likely candidate and headed off. No dice, the road split twice with no signs telling you what was going on. We turned back and tried another. Still not right. This one headed up hill and the topo specifically told us we needed to be loosing elevation. Back again. At this point I began to get a bit freaked out. We were lost.

There was more cussing. I cussed the map, and the trail. I cussed the time of year, and the sun, and the darkness, and my complete lack of ability to fix the situation. Then I became worried that dark was approaching and we couldn't locate where to go.

Trail magic is a funny thing. It speaks to the occurrence of extreme happenstance exactly when you need it. As trail magic would have it, two older gentlemen came up a bizarre side trail walking their dogs. Who walks their dogs in the middle of a National Forest off some weird side trail in the late afternoon as things are getting dark?!? They were locals and had never heard of the trail we were trying to find, but knew of the footbridge and how to get to the PCT. When they started to give me directions and I looked at them in complete bewilderment (I was so turned around at that point) they decided to take us their themselves. We went back down one of the places we came to previously, across a small unmarked jaunt, up three switchbacks and connected us to the sign pointing 1 mile to the PCT. The trail on my map was 405 E, the actual trail is 406 E. I honestly would never have found this connection in a million years, with all the daylight in the world. At this point I thanked Buddha, and Christ, and God, and Allah, and the Universe, any other deity which might exist somewhere that I had forgotten.

With darkness falling fast, we began walking double time. One mile seemed endless. The Barracuda was getting worried, I was getting a bit frantic. There was no where to put a tent if we wanted to. There was no way we could stop. Finally, it ended and we both squealed with delight. Headlamps were dawned and the tent was staked in the middle of the trail. At that point, anyone who was walking the PCT in January was just going to have to deal with it. We ate tortillas and cheese for dinner, read Call of the Wild and were so unbelievably thankful we didn't care that we were sleeping on rocks.

I have never been so thankful to see a sign in my entire life! The Barracuda put it best when he said, "I'm so thankful we have a place to sleep."

2 thoughts:

Mr. H. said...

You two are crazy...but in a good way.:) What an adventure, I'm so glad you are sharing these journeys with you readers. The water pictures are amazing...the boy in the snow is pretty wild to.

E said...

Your trip is more adventurous than it seemed at first. Good luck and good planning.

Most people don headlamps but dawning is an interesting twist.

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