|August 3, 2004.
Rain this morning. The entire area is socked in with fog... I cannot even make out Mt. Pulitzer except through occasional breaks in the clouds. So I'll wait it out here, drinking tea under my tarp and writing in my journal.
By 10:30 I've waited long enough, and although the clouds haven't cleared, I begrudgingly pack the wet tarp and continue on my way up & over the flanks of Mount Pulitzer. I pass several other parties today, mostly climbers and peak-baggers on their way to this summit or that. As I pass the many beautiful lakes & tarns below Mts. Pulitzer & Ferry, the rain settles in for good, and before long, despite my raingear, I'm quite soaked. If the weather were better, I'm sure I'd take many pictures of the idyllic scenes here. But right now, I neither have the patience nor the inclination to pull out my camera in the incessant showers. Navigating my way down from the ridge to Cream Lake, I've obviously lost the trail, because before long I'm bushwacking through a ridiculously steep (and wet) forest. It's useless to go back and look for it... no trail is marked on the map, and in this weather, I could only search like a blind man with a stick. Impatiently, I plow forward down the steep slope (damn the torpedoes!), eventually making my way down to the soggy basin, accompanied by the "squish-squash" of my waterlogged boots.
In sunny weather, I'm sure Cream Lake is a beautiful place to stay, but right now I'm in a foul mood, hunched under my tarp in the incessant rain. My wet hiking clothes sit in a pile under the corner of my tarp. Damp, dust-fine lakeshore sand sticks to everything in sight, and it's not long before I give up trying to keep the grey dust off my gear. "It'll come off easily once I dry out" I assure myself, so why fight it. I abhor changing into wet clothes first thing in the morning, so I optimistically hope for sunshine tomorrow, falling asleep to the "pitter-patter" rain on the tarp.
August 4, 2004.
It rained all last night... most of this morning, too. I pack up late and follow an old avalanche chute up the slopes above Cream Lake. At the top of a high shelf 2000' above the lake I intend to follow the advice I'd heard from one of the passing parties yesterday. "From up there you'll see a game trail... follow it. That'll take you over to the main trail pretty quick. From there, you can follow the trail all the way out to the Catwalk... no more looking for a trail." Sounds good to me!
And sure enough, I see a game trail, and follow it for awhile. But soon the trail starts climbing, which confuses me, because from my
information (i.e. the reports of several other parties) the actual trail should be lower down. I see no human footprints, only elk tracks, and spot several bull elk grazing and running through the high meadows ahead. But I keep going. "This has
to be it," I assure myself. "If it weren't, this trail would have faded off into the first meadow it entered (as elk trails often do)." Sure enough, before long the trail fades away completely into a steep meadow
, and I'm left looking around for the actual trail.
For the next hour or two I search, high and low in the intermittant fog. This slope is steep
, almost vertical in places, and I don't relish continuing this sidehill slog without a route. Immediately ahead of me there is a precarious chute that I'd rather not traverse without help of a path. I've had enough tricky off-trail travel for one trip.
Nearly two hours pass, and I'm about to give up, searching aimlessly in the fog. Then, the clouds break for a god-blessed brief moment. There, around the next ridge, far below me (by at least 800 feet!) is a trail... a definite trail. Not an intermittant elk-route, but a trodden pathway of dirt. Almost ecstatically, I scramble down the forests & rockfields, eventually finding my way. After wasting most my morning away, I'm finally heading up through the Northern half of the Bailey Range (yay!).
The trail is here, but it's not what you'd normally think of a "trail." Unmaintained, totally unsupported by the Park, this unofficial route has developed an uncanny habit of side-hilling along steep scree slopes and down over narrow gullies. It has a constant tendency to dangerously slope
in the downhill direction. Plenty of "pucker" moments (just don't... slip... here!
) come and go, but compared to what I've done already, this almost seems like a walk through Central Park!
By evening I reach the only possible campsite (with flat ground and a water source) I'll see along the Northern Bailey Range. So, here at Eleven Bull Basin, I sit down in the early afternoon. There are no distant views yet through the clouds across the valley, but in the immediate alpine environment, wildflowers and blueberry bushes dominate the stream-braided hillsides.
While eating dinner on a rocky knoll, I spot a bear, gorging on blueberries, a couple hundred yards off. Then, I see another, further off yet. Then another
, and another
! Before dinner is over, through my binoculars I'm staring at four black bears across the miles-wide hillside of bushes. None of them seem concerned (even though several have looked at me, and I'm quite sure they've all
smelled my dinner). Tonight, I'll take extra care to secure the Ursack well... I don't doubt if I'll have a visitor or two tonight!
As the sun sets over the Hoh River Valley, the clouds rise and part, just enough to reveal the glacial braids of the mighty Hoh River snaking through its wide rainforest valley below. "Two days and I'll be there," I think to myself. I will be there
... this certainty has become a comfort to me. After so many questions and doubts along the Queets, it is a welcome relief to be so confident of my future once again.
August 5, 2004.
Shortly after waking under my tarp, I dine on breakfast, again with the bears. This morning, I see five
black bears as I eat (it seems they brought a friend!), and surprisingly, not a one of 'em touched my food bag last night. Apparently they've got better things to eat!
A short half-mile down the trail this morning, I see yet another bear, foraging on the hillside above the trail. I pass under him, smiling as I go, almost tempted to wave good-morning and chat about the weather.
Eventually I reach the infamous "Catwalk," a knife-edged ridge of stone that one must cross to officially begin a traverse of the Bailey Range. (You see, most people don't start like I did... it's only a one-day hike from the Sol Duc TH to the Catwalk, so inevitably almost all Bailey Range traverses start here and go south.) I traverse it confidently... although the rock is exposed and I keep my wits about me, the route is well-traveled, and I am never without a secure foothold or handhold. After two years of hearing ominous trip reports about the famed Catwalk, I'm a little underwhelmed! I guess I've had enough edge-of-death moments this trip that this one seems remarkably unremarkable. I stop for a few pictures in the breaking clouds and continue up the steep "goat trail" leading over the top of the dusty ridge.
Before I know it, I'm on a trail. Not an elk-path, not an unmaintained "route", but an honest-to-god trail,
complete with blasted level pathways, cut logs and proper drainage. How novel! I haven't seen one of these in, let's see.... eleven days?
I could kneel down and kiss it (and I almost do!), but I soon pass a small party of four backpackers carrying overstuffed e-frame packs. One of them dons blue-jeans, and another has seen better days of fitness (*ahem*) in his younger years. They ask me where I'm coming from, and I tell 'em. They glance at each other with slightly agape looks of surprise.
"You came up the Queets River? Why, that's where we're
going!" one of them exclaims. I pause to make sure I heard him right. Apparently, I did. They're on day two of eleven in their planned trip, ready to traverse the Bailey Range southbound and head down the Queets River, from headwaters to trailhead. My jaw hits the floor.
"You're going where?
What are you, nuts? You'll get yourselves killed! You'll never make it through there with those oversized snag-on-everything
packs, and crapholio equipment... you're wearing jeans
, for chrissake!! And look at you
... you're already huffing and puffing here, and you haven't even left the trail! You're gonna die out there!" These are all things I want to say, but don't. I know that if someone lectured me
against heading in there before I left, I'd have taken it as rude, and probably snuffed 'em off. "They don't know me... they don't know how much I've prepared..." I'm sure I would have said. But I am worried nonetheless, and tell them (quite honestly) that it was the toughest thing I've ever done... it's rough country back there.
Apparently the older gentleman among them has traversed the Bailey Range before, and it seems only logical that traversing the Queets River would be a great finish. I want to say "but... the Bailey Range is cake
compared to the Queets River. There's a visible pathway
over the Bailey Range! The two can't even be compared!" But again I hold my tongue. Instead, I offer them the best advice I can about routes and obstacles I encountered. I make sure to include "if you can't find a way down the Queets River, remember, you can head out the Elwha Snowfinger to get out safely." Perhaps they're not listening now, but I have a feeling this might be important advice further on in their journey. They seem visibly disappointed (as I'm sure I would have been) to have met me; someone who just completed
the wild, untamed route they're about to attempt. But I care little of their disappointment, I'm worried about their safety, even if they're not.
After an all-too-brief conversation, I'm headed down the trail again, leading over High Divide. Questions shoot through my head ("My god, what maps are they using? Should I have given them mine [I collected three sets of maps before this journey]? Should I go back and get their emergency contact info?"). I barely stop worrying for the next several days.
Back in the realm of maintained trails along the "High Divide" (the ridge between the Hoh and Sol Duc valleys) I pass several sets of weekend backpackers, and spot two more bears foraging in the Seven Lakes Basin below (bringing my daily total to eight!
). I head down from High Divide to Hoh Lake, where I camp my first night (in two weeks) at an established national-park backcountry campsite. It's got a latrine (wow, imagine that!), dished out gravel campsites (I'm not so enthused about that
), and bear wires for my food. Three capable Canadian gentlemen and five greenhorn high-school grads (none of 'em backpackers, but all having a good time) share the soggy evening with me at Hoh Lake, and we chat the night away. Tonight, we spot six
more bears foraging the alpine hillsides above Hoh Lake, pushing my daily total to a personal-record fourteen
black bears, several oversized marmot, and one mountain-goat. What a day!
It's another rainy night, this one wetter than most. Every piece of clothing smells of dank body odor, and my feet have suffered a case of athlete's foot in my consistently wet boots, but I care little. Tomorrow will be day 14 of my leg (without a single rest day), and should all go well, I will head down to Five-Mile-Island on the Hoh River. On Day 15, friends from the PNWH will meet me there, bringing food (I'm almost out!
) and long-sought companionship. On Day 16, we hike out. For all intents and purposes, my trip is over. No more worrying. No more impassable obstacles. No more adrenaline. I'm tired, weary, drained, and ready to be finished. It takes some time to get to sleep... The high-schoolers converse loudly, and I've grown unaccustomed to hearing voices nearby as I drift off. There are eight other people within five square miles of me, and I feel a little crowded... a little closed-in. Tonight, I sleep heavily on a bed of hard-packed dished gravel, and eventually fall asleep amidst a dark, steady rain.