Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Day 137- On the Knife's Edge

From mile 2244 to the Knife's Edge at mile 2286

Around five thirty in the morning when I was working on my blog a hunter walked quietly past our camp. He waved and so did I. Portrait sat up, sleepily, and watched the hunter disappeared into the darkness. I imagine the hunter was searching for elk. We had met a hunter on horseback the other day asking if we'd seen any elk or knew where cell service was. We weren't much help on either topic. Not long after we left camp, right at the entrance of Goat Rocks Wilderness, two elk crossed the trail in front of us. The second elk stopped in the trail so we could see his whole body and he just looked at us. It was a little too far away to try for a photo, and I was pretty sure he'd take off if either of us moved.

It was fun to finally be in the Goat Rocks. People had been telling us since we entered Washington, or maybe before that, how cool the Goat Rocks area was. We started climbing up with Mount Adams for company. In the valley below we could see lakes like blue gems shimmering in the sun. We hardly stopped to enjoy the view--we had too many miles to do for that. We knew from the vague hints in the guide book that camping was limited because the trail went above tree line for a few miles when crossing the Knife's Edge--a section of trail on a narrow ridge ridge. It seemed like our day was timed to hit the Knife's Edge at day's end leaving us high and exposed.

From one view spot we saw a couple of hikers ahead of us on the trail.  We didn't think the hikers ahead were Silky Smooth and Blackout, our new best friends, because even at a distance the hikers' white shirts looked too clean. We caught up to them less than a hour later and chatted with them about their 100 mile section hike for a bit. Then we moved on--it was not yet noon but I was already thinking only about lunch. I ended up getting too hungry to make it to the next water source so we stopped early and I had a quick snack--mostly candy--to fuel me the next couple of miles to our real lunch spot.

Even with a snack I kept expecting the river to be around each bend in the trail. I wasn't just hungry, my tendons were aching. On one of the bends when I was hoping for the river we came across a southbounder, Spot, instead. He said we were close to the river. We peppered him with questions about Goat Rocks and the Knife's Edge.  He told us there was plenty of camping on either side of the Knife. He shook his head in disbelief when he told us about the northbounders he met that had started the Knife an hour before sunset. We wished him luck on his southward journey and cruised on to the river.

When we sat down on a log next to the river we checked the time and limited ourselves to a forty-five minute lunch break. Lunch break time limits are easier to dream up, and much harder to enforce. I was just putting on my shoes during the forty-fifth minute and Silky Smooth and Blackout showed up a couple minutes later. We chatted for a bit about our camping plans for the the night. We all were planning on a 25 mile day getting us over the Knife's Edge, and down to the valley where there was a lake with camping. At lunch's end we still had the hardest part of the day ahead of us.

After lunch Portrait and I climbed. It seemed like now we were really climbing up to the Goat Rocks. It was a little annoying not really knowing which area was Goat Rocks. It seemed like every other time we could easily identify where we were: Camped under Mount Adams, on the side of Mount Hood, walking under Castle Crags, looking out at the Trinity Alps. Goat Rocks felt more mysterious. But finally we were standing in front of the Goat Rocks... I think.  Across a canyon was a range of steep and jagged peaks that seemed to be made of crumbling rocks.  It looked like the perfect home for the goats that we had heard stories about.

The trail took us along the canyon's edge. We walked through a meadow that was the color of new grass. We walked across a short snow field that spit us out onto rocks. We cut a switchback to avoid another snow patch and left us scrambling up a rocky slope. I slid backwards down the slope while trying to get my feet back on trail. I had to hike back down the slope and then up to a less steep area to finally make it back on trail. I could see our new best friends following our tracks, and I wasn't sure if that was the wisest choice. Once back on trail we were at the top of a small mountain pass and not one goat sighting yet.

In front of Goat Rocks
We started down the other side of the ridge which had almost no loose rocks, but was all meadow and waterfalls. It looked much less harsh than the other side of the ridge. It was also deceptive. I had fixed my sights on the waterfall across the valley and thought I saw how the trail went there, but then hiking there the trail disappeared into the folds of the mountain adding miles of lush hidden trail. The trail was at least easy to hike on--assuming one wasn't staring at the views too much to follow the trail.

We did eventually make it to the waterfall. We were pretty sure it was our last water source of the day--which meant we would fill up to capacity and than pass a half a dozen more streams.  At the waterfall we met a dad out with his two sons.  They asked a few questions about trail life. The dad seemed more impressed with us than the boys, but they all shook our hands when we parted ways. Portrait and I filled up our bottles while they hiked back to their base camp.  Silky Smooth and Blackout caught up with us at the waterfall. None of our plans for a 25 mile day had changed, even though the afternoon was growing old and we still had the hardest part of the day ahead of us.

We left the falls and true to form we passed many other small streams that trickled pleasantly over the trail. An hour later and many streams later we stopped for a snack break at the last listed campsite before the one at the lake many miles away. As I ate, Portrait and I discussed our options. I think we knew we couldn't make it to the lake, not in a timely fashion, and certainly not before dark. If we weren't going into town the next day it wouldn't have mattered where we camped, but if we didn't push for the lake there would be no town the next afternoon. I couldn't give up on town and make camp at five o'clock when there was still so much daylight left.

We decided to go for it. We started hiking up what I was sure was the real Goat Rocks. The trail went through high meadows with lupine flowers and rock piles dotting the land. Cairns seemed to mark the trail higgly piggly, but perhaps the stone markers made more sense when snow covered the real trail. Many of the people who had already reached Canada had walked through the Goat Rocks when it was covered in snow. I expected to hear any day from Stride saying she had finished her hike.

We climbed up. It started out gently enough--just another uphill after months of uphills just like it. The trail crossed a large snow field, maybe the biggest one I had hiked across on the trip so far, but it too, was gentle. Only the last few yards were angled downward. At the northern end of the snow patch the PCT split into two: one trail for the hikers that went up and then over the Knife's Edge, and another one for the horses that did not go up or over the Knife. We went up of course, and then the trail got interesting.

Without the horse the trail didn't need to stay at a nice gentle grade so it climbed steeply for for a half mile over a jumble of rocks that looked vaguely like a trail. The time was creeping past 6:30, the sun was getting low, and I couldn't help but think about Spot the southbounder shaking his head at the northbounders starting the Knife's Edge an hour before sunset. By the time we got to the top of the climb it was an hour before sunset and the downhill looked more daunting than the climb up.

The top of the climb with the Knife's Edge before us
For the descent the trail was on a very narrow ridge made up of loose sliding rock. The west cost rocks are nothing like the rocks I was used to on the Appalachian Trail. The PCT rocks sound like porcelain as they crunch against each other. They look like they could all be fit back together if you had the time--like if the sun wasn't vanishing behind the next ridge. Even though I knew I was going to be night hiking on wobbling rocks on a knee jarring descent with plunging drops on either side I still found the rocks interesting--but maybe that's because the ridge was blocking the view of the setting sun. The sun did cast Rainier in a beautiful pink light.

On the Knife's Edge just before sunset
I welcomed the horse trail back with great happiness. With the horses back the trail had to be nice to us. Except it had one little trick left for us. A section of the trail had washed out leaving nothing but a narrow sandy ledge with nothing but the valley floor a lifetime below it. There was nothing for it though, but forward. It made me and Portrait hesitate, but we both got across. We looked back at our new best friends that we could see a half mile behind us. They would be doing the tricky section at dark.

The night sky, taken by Portrait 
It was just about dark, we had checked out a couple of maybe campsites and decided that they were all horrible--too windy, too exposed, so much hill we might wake up in the valley. Then we saw the perfect spot. It was down off the trail so it had that ridge to protect it, and then it had a second ridge on the other side. In the middle of some wind burnt grass was three little sandy flat spots just big enough to cowboy camp on. We made camp, keeping an eye our for Silky Smooth and Blackout. We were able to watch their approach by following their head lamps. They grabbed one of the other campsites. We were all settling down for the night when we saw another headlamp coming our way. Portrait flagged down the new hiker, who turned out to be Just John, who I had met once just north of Hiker Town, more than 1700 miles earlier. He seemed very grateful for the place to camp--as were we all.