Wonderland Trail Day 5

Pyramid Creek to Klapatche Park: 12.9 miles, +4800/-3000 (plus unscheduled “detour” of approx 2 miles, approx +700/-700)

Before our hike, this was simply “Day Five,” always said in a slightly ominous tone because it entailed our longest mileage and largest amount of climbing (three big climbs, out-uphilling every other day by more than 1000 feet). By nightfall, this day would henceforth only be referred to as “Terrible Day.” And while it did indeed have its share of the terrible, it was not entirely bad. In fact, it rather neatly split itself into two parts: before the rain and during the rain. Photos exist only for the first part.

Before The Rain

We had both been worrying about this day for weeks, and increasingly so since the challenge of our second day. This trail was teaching us that there are real limits to what Illinois-based training can prepare one for in the mountains. So as we settled into camp at Pyramid Creek the night before, we made a plan. We would wake at 5am and break camp as quickly as possible, eating cold breakfast and postponing coffee/cocoa for a mid-morning break. We would take short breaks and push hard. We would stop for dinner at a lake about a mile from Klapatche Park camp, so that if the sun was setting we only had to set up our tent and hang the bear bag by the light of our headlamps. We gave each other pep talks before bed.

Hiking past Pyramid Creek in the wee hours of the morning.
Hiking past Pyramid Creek in the wee hours of the morning.

In the morning, all went according to plan. We were on the trail by 6.20am, and delighted to find ourselves hiking in a beautiful chilly fog. I prefer to hike colder rather than hotter, and fog/mist is Cyn’s favorite weather, so we had a surprisingly good climb up to Devil’s Dream camp (2.2 miles of uphill). The forest was extremely quiet, no sign of any other hikers out yet, and we kept up steady conversation to alert any bears of our presence. Halfway there, we suddenly heard a loud grunt or sigh, and froze in our tracks, certain that a bear was just behind the tree in front of us. But no, it was a very gentle trail volunteer, Terry, who was grunting his way up a big step in the trail. He stopped to give us the news that there had been a glacier release (“unintentional,” he added) last night, which had washed out an exit road (“So if you were thinking of using that road to bail today, sorry — you’re totally committed to getting to Klapatche Park now!”). He reassured us that the suspension bridge a few miles up was completely unaffected. Terry may never know, but he also changed Cyn’s life by suggesting that she take off the duct tape and blister bandaids she’d been trying for her arch blisters, and put on second skin bandages instead. [He really did change the whole trip for me. With this change, my feet went from excruciating to just moderately painful and tolerable. I would have hiked back to find him and hug him if it hadn’t meant doing the climb to Devil’s Dream again. -Cyn] Then he wished us good luck on our long day, and we continued up to Devil’s Dream. There, I made hot drinks and we ate snacks while Cyn terrified me by using her pocketknife to slice the blister bandaids from her feet. Using Terry’s technique, she immediately felt relief for the first time in days.

A happy hiker in the misty morning.
A happy hiker in the misty morning.

As we pushed on, we crossed paths with a man we’d seen our very first day — we recognized his unique satchel. We occasionally met people twice, if they were hiking the loop in the opposite direction a bit faster than we were. He was in great spirits, though warned us that the weather didn’t look good. “But oh well, just means I don’t get to see the mountain today!” He explained that he had booked a room in the inn at Longmire for the night; several hours later, I would feel an unbelievable amount of jealousy about this.

Onward through outrageously beautiful misty meadows and along foggy lakes. We stopped at the park’s oldest working patrol cabin on our way to Tahoma Creek, and ate a snack on the porch while chatting with the ranger, Dave. He confirmed that this is the driest summer they’ve had in years and helped us plan out our water sources for the day. He approved of our pack weights, which thrilled me again. And he gave us a weather report: some rain showers in the afternoon, but clear during the night and following day. Okay, we thought. We’ve got our rain gear. No problem. Then we were heading back into the forest as the trail went up and down like a rollercoaster.

Misty meadow just north of Devil's Dream camp.
Misty meadow just north of Devil’s Dream camp.
Foggy lake north of Devil's Dream.
Foggy lake north of Devil’s Dream.
Serene, moss-surrounded water source, right where ranger Dave told us it would be.
Serene, moss-surrounded water source, right where ranger Dave told us it would be.

We emerged again at one of my most anticipated spots on the trail: the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge. All along this trip, we wondered about the rules for designating water “creek” vs. “river.” I’ve always thought of the former as smaller and shallower, but Tahoma Creek is huge and feeds out of the Tahoma Glacier. Volunteer Terry had told us the suspension bridge was at least 100 feet up and 100 feet long. It was amazing, thrilling. From the center, if you were brave enough to stop and turn around a bit as it swayed beneath you, you could see the Tahoma Glacier to the east. We crossed one at a time, as the sign recommended.

Approaching the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge.
Approaching the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge.
Cyn's view from the bridge.
Cyn’s view from the bridge.
Me on the bridge. This image cannot fully capture how excited I was!
Me on the bridge, looking back toward the Tahoma Glacier. This image cannot fully capture how excited I was!

We were feeling pretty pleased overall as we headed into our second and steepest climb of the day, up to Emerald Ridge. Surrounded by increasingly heavy mist, we put on our rain jackets. Uphill progress was a bit slower as the trail was covered in uneven rocks, but the mental task of navigating them happily distracted me from the intense climb. We were making great time so far, and feeling quite optimistic about getting into camp earlier than anticipated. Foot pain had significantly lessened for both of us, our energy levels were high, and we wondered aloud if we had finally gotten our “trail legs.” [I even thought this day I had been dreading might turn out to be my favorite yet. -Cyn] [Hahahahaha. -Toby] Atop Emerald Ridge, we could see almost nothing but fog in every direction. Supposedly there are magnificent views on the west side of the mountain, but we were so elated with our progress thus far that we almost didn’t mind missing them. I snapped a few more photos of Cyn on the foggy ridge, and we took a selfie with “Mt. Rainier” (completely covered by a wall of fog) in the background.

Cyn at Emerald Ridge. It was still eerily beautiful up there, even if almost totally socked in.
Cyn at Emerald Ridge. It was still eerily beautiful up there, even if almost totally socked in.
Posing in front of Mt. Rainier. The last time we were happy that day.
The last time we were happy that day.

During The Rain

On the way down from Emerald Ridge, the rain began in earnest. We were descending on loose rock, and had to pick our way through slowly. We were both beginning to feel frustrated and cold by the time we hit South Puyallup River camp. We huddled under some trees at the group tent site there, pulling on our rain pants for warmth and throwing back a few handfuls of trail mix. The cold rain was not very fun, but we were pleased to see we’d hit this camp more than an hour ahead of our ideal schedule: it was not even 3pm, and we tentatively, happily suggested to each other that we might make it to Klapatche Park by 6.30 or 7pm! We packed up everything; my map and trail notes were in my shorts pocket, under my rain pants, so I didn’t look at them as I usually did before leaving a rest stop (Mistake #1). We rushed down the trail to the privy (an unusually long 500 feet from camp proper), where I noticed some huge andesite columns. I had read about these, and really wanted to see them in person, but my trail notes had said they required a bit of a side trail. When Cyn emerged from the privy, I excitedly pointed them out to her: “I guess they’re along the Wonderland after all! So cool!” (Mistake #2)

Sick of being rained on, but encouraged by being ahead of schedule, we flew down the trail. Cyn usually hikes in front (gallantly clearing the trail of spiderwebs for me, aww!), and she set a blistering pace here. It was awesome. We were going to get to camp so early! I briefly registered that I hadn’t seen a trail sign noting the mileage to Klapatche Park — signage is sparse on the Wonderland, but at every camp so far, a sign had clearly marked direction and mileage to the next camp. I decided I’d probably just missed it, since we were hiking so fast (Mistake #3). I was also beginning to wonder why the trail was still going downhill, when I could have sworn the map and notes indicated switchbacks up to St. Andrews Park. But we were on such a roll, I didn’t want to stop to double check (Mistake #4).

We followed the trail alongside the loud, rushing Puyallup River for about a mile or so, until suddenly the river seemed to swallow the whole trail. We rock-hopped across some streams, trying a few different options to see if the trail would pick up again, but no luck. Finally, I pulled out the map. Oh. We had been hiking a different trail this whole time. Had we been on the Wonderland, we would have immediately crossed and turned away from the river. We looked at each other with shared horror. There was nothing to do but retrace our steps, now going uphill back to camp. We did see a very adorable frog just as we turned around, but this was only a very brief flicker of happiness as we trudged back in the rain. At camp, we located the sign pointing to the Wonderland and giving mileage to Klapatche Park (it had been facing an odd direction in relation to our arrival point, and we just totally missed it in the rain the first time). I checked my watch: 4.20pm — we had just wasted more than an hour, along with tons of energy.

I cannot stress enough how low our morale was at this moment. Truly, rock bottom. We briefly considered trying to crash at South Puyallup River camp, but it could well be fully booked up, and because it was a river camp at low elevation, most campsites were already looking like miniature lakes anyway. We agreed to push on toward our last climb and try to reach our own campsite before dark. The switchbacks I’d wondered about earlier were now agonizing. We were drenched despite our rain gear (this is to be expected, since either rain gets in from outside or you sweat from the inside — in real rain, rain gear exists more to add warmth than to keep you dry). We passed another thru-hiker heading down, who asked us with an edge of desperation, “Am I getting pretty close to the camp down there?” “Not too far,” I said gloomily, “unlike us.”

It took a lot of willpower to keep going. The ascent was endless. Every time we seemed to have crested the ridge, another set of stairs appeared before us. Everything was still totally fogged in, so we had no view and no visible landmarks by which to gauge our distance from camp. Hiking the trail was now like walking the middle of a creek, and our feet were soaked through. I started to feel very, very cold. Each time we stopped to rest, even briefly, my feet felt freezing. I desperately wanted to keep hiking to stay warm, but Cyn’s legs were fading fast on the relentless uphill, so she couldn’t keep hiking without breaks. It is indicative of our general personalities that we never bickered with each other during this period. Instead, we both apologized constantly. “I’m sorry, I know you’re tired, I just have to keep moving!” “I know, I’m so sorry, I just can’t make my legs go!” We were miserable, and I was beginning to worry. I periodically assessed both of us for symptoms of hypothermia, reminding myself that if needed we could always pitch our tent someplace and crawl into our dry sleeping clothes and sleeping bags, all safely secured from the rain. But I also noted that because we were hiking along a ridge, the ground sloped down sharply on both sides, leaving us no good site to put up the tent.

We turned a corner on the ridge and were blasted by cold wind. It might have been around this time when Cyn turned around and saw me near tears. A curious but very helpful characteristic of our relationship is that when one of us really freaks out, the other one magically becomes calm and in charge. Cyn kicked into another gear, asking me to recount some of my favorite moments of our relationship, of our grad school friendships, anything to distract us from our misery and keep us moving. [It was like someone flipped a switch when I saw Toby’s face. I went from thinking “Oh my god I cannot possibly do this” to “We’ve got this! We’re gonna be fine! I just need to stop for a second and then we’re gonna crush the rest of this trail!” -Cyn] At last we began the descent, which let us pick up the pace a bit, and I desperately scanned the landscape to the east for St. Andrews Lake. That morning we’d planned to stop there for a hot dinner before heading on to camp; now that seemed like a decade ago. Finally: the lake. We knew now we had less than a mile to go. We’d barely stopped to drink water in the downpour (don’t do this, kids), so had no need to fill up before camp. We hurried on. Here, we noted bitterly, we passed multiple trailside signs. As we approached each one, I was filled with hope that it marked our camp, then dropped into despair as each sign said the same thing: WONDERLAND TRAIL. “Where were you when we were on the wrong trail?!” I yelled into the wind.

But then, like a miracle, a side trail ahead, with a sign in front. Klapatche Park camp! Two people have never set up a tent so fast. Cyn pulled out the only thing we could eat for dinner that wouldn’t require generating garbage that we’d have to re-hang in the bear bag: a plain flour tortilla for each of us. She shoved these down her jacket, we hung the bear bags, and then dove into the tent and into our warm clothes and bags, wolfing down our dry tortillas. A half hour or so later, just as we were beginning to warm up, the rain stopped. Of course. Exhausted mentally and physically, but finally feeling calmer (even a bit cozy?) we burrowed into our bags for the night, putting all of our faith in ranger Dave’s prediction of clear skies for the next morning. –Toby


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