Wonderland Trail Day 2

Summerland to Nickel Creek: 11.1 miles — +1800/-4300

We woke up with the sunrise with a view of Mt. Rainier wearing a cloud like a top hat. We had some oatmeal, broke down camp, and set off to Panhandle Gap. I was feeling strong and confident, since we had crushed 9.5 miles with more elevation gain the day before — 11 miles seemed like no big deal. And the climb up to Panhandle Gap was easy. And stunning. After crossing the stream in the grassy meadow where I’d gotten water the night before, the landscape started to look other-worldly. There were no trees up here, just rocky hills and cliffs with glacial streams and patches of snow lingering here and there. We took our time picking our way over rocks and taking tons of pictures. This was one of my favorite times on the trail, when I felt truly lucky to be able to see something so awe-inspiring and so unique.

Sunrise from our campsite.
Sunrise from our tent, with the moon still visible.
Mt. Rainier in the early morning.
Mt. Rainier in the early morning.
On the climb up the Panhandle Gap, looking back at our campsite.
On the climb up to Panhandle Gap, looking back at our campsite.
2015-08-11 09.14.14
Starting to look like a moonscape up here.
The view from the top of Panhandle Gap, the highest point on the trail.
The view from the top of Panhandle Gap, the highest point on the trail.

We crossed over Panhandle Gap and the awe continued. We felt like we were on top of the world with views of vast mountain ranges, while surrounded by cliffs and low brush in reds and greens. We saw herds of mountain goats off in the distance and once passed a marmot only two feet off the trail who was too intent on digging up elevensies to care that we were there.

Just after Panhandle Gap. This picture doesn't even begin to capture the view.
Just after Panhandle Gap. This picture doesn’t even begin to capture the view.
A little farther along the trail.
A little farther along the trail.
Our marmot friend. I could have reached it with my trekking pole.
Our marmot friend. I could have reached it with my trekking pole.

Then we started our first real, steep descent into Indian Bar, one of the most popular and scenic campsites. We went only a third of the way down when I saw the shelter off in the distance and thought it couldn’t be far off. Then we passed some people who were climbing up the path, looking vaguely miserable. We said some encouraging words but one person pointed out that it was frustrating to be able to see where they started that morning and still have 800 feet of elevation to go. We promised they were almost there and carried on, feeling like strong hikers in comparison.

Starting our descent into Indian Bar.
Starting our descent into Indian Bar.
Our view on the way down.
Our view on the way down.

Our moment of over-confidence came back to bite us when we didn’t see Indian Bar again for at least an hour, and when we did it looked no closer than it had before. This is when it hit home how taxing long descents can be. Going up will shred your lungs, but going down wrecks the rest of your body. My knees, ankles, and feet were miserable and it was getting hotter and hotter. By the time we got to Indian Bar we were tired and sore, and about an hour behind schedule.

The group shelter at Indian Bar.
The group shelter at Indian Bar.
The view from the privy was pretty epic ("toilet" in foreground).
The view from the privy was pretty epic (“toilet” in foreground).

We ate lunch quickly while soaking our feet in the freezing river that leads to Wauhaukaupauken Falls, then refilled water and took off for the last seven miles of the day, getting a little scared about what time we would get to camp. About two seconds after we left, Toby and I had our one and only fight on the trip. I had asked Toby to put a ProBar in my hip belt while I was at the privy and he hadn’t heard me. I had a fit for about 10 seconds and then realized how ridiculous it was, considering I had several minutes to check my hip belt and get a ProBar myself while he was at the privy himself.

With that out of the way, we started our climb out of camp, and things took a turn. Whether it was the heat or altitude or mental fatigue, I felt terrible. My legs felt like lead and every time I thought we might be near the top another hill appeared before us. Suddenly I thought, “This trail is never going to stop going up” and completely panicked. Toby ushered me to a rock to sit on and I just started sobbing. But then, trail magic. Around the corner came two goth hikers. I tried to hide that I’d been crying but the guy launched into a diatribe about how this trail was the fucking hardest thing he’d ever done (Goth Guy swore a lot, at least in my memory of him). Tomorrow was his last day and he could not fucking wait to get off the mountain. He had been crying himself an hour ago and there were plenty of exit points if I needed them. Somehow this was all exactly what I needed to hear – so much more cathartic than the positive, encouraging interactions we usually had on the trail. It got me to suck it up and carry on. Thanks, Goth Guy, wherever you are!

View from Cowlitz Divide, at the top of the hard climb. Our picture taking dropped off a bit in the second half of the day.
View from Cowlitz Divide, at the top of the hard climb. Our picture taking dropped off a bit in the second half of the day.

The rest of the day was mostly tedious. I felt like I had to stop and breathe every five minutes and there were no good landmarks to gauge our progress. We also seemed to be hiking through the world’s largest bee colony – for miles all we heard was buzzing on the side of the trail, making it hard to find a place to stop and rest. When we finally got to a junction with a sign pointing to our camp at Nickel Creek, I was beyond thrilled to see we only had two more miles.

Yes, I kissed the sign. It was a very long day.
Yes, I kissed the sign. It was a very long day.

The last two miles were all down hill but mostly even and smooth and Toby took off like a trail runner. [Note that this does not mean I felt fresh and energized; I was just dying to finally reach camp. –Toby] I kept up for a while but hit a wall and started zombie hiking – having no thoughts or real awareness, just putting one foot in front of the other and hoping that a bear didn’t come along and realize what easy pickings I was at that moment. After about an hour I heard Toby yelling up the trail: camp at last. When I finally caught up, we both yelled some more out of relief. And it was only 6:30, a totally respectable arrival time. We walked in to find a place to put up our tent, and passed two women who seemed to be pretty settled in. They started chatting with us encouragingly and assuring us that our bodies would adjust after the first few days. We wondered at the time how they knew we needed to hear that, and only later realized that they definitely heard us both yelling “Oh my god camp!! I can’t believe we made it!!” out in the middle of the woods. –Cynthia


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