PNT Day 1: A Rough Start

Today’s miles: 7.9

I’m wide awake by 5am, just so ready to finally hike, and so ready to be away from people, after these last few days of travel. I take my last real shower for the next two weeks, eat, pack my pack, and head out.

I’m going to Stehekin, a teeny little town at the southern end of North Cascades National Park. It’s separated from Chelan by the 50+ mile long Lake Chelan (also, I learn, the third deepest lake in the U.S.) and accessible only by boat. So I walk a mile and a half through town to catch the ferry, my fourth and final mode of mass transit. I’m already sweaty and stinky by the time I board. It’s a beautiful—but for me agonizingly slow—2.5 hour trip up the lake.

On the ferry ride.

We arrive around 11:30, and I make a quick stop to use the flush toilet and fill my water bottles, then it’s up past the trailhead, immediately leaving all the people behind. Almost right away I see a white-tailed deer and fawn. Magic.

Not long after that, the hike gets hard. It feels so much harder than I anticipated. Why? I try to settle in to a steady pace. I knew today would be tough, gaining approximately 5,500 feet over just about 7.5 miles. But I feel way worse than even that would suggest, and so early! I’m relieved when I arrive at Purple Creek, marking two miles done. This is my last water source before camp, so I stop for lunch and drink nearly a liter before filling up all of my bottles.

It takes me a few minutes to discern where the trail continues after the creek, the exit point hidden in some thick overgrowth. I feel refreshed from lunch and some clouds have come in to block the sun, and I get another mile in before I start to feel terrible again. I’m pouring sweat and my pulse is pounding in my ears. Is it smoke that’s drifted over from the wildfires in the east? Is it that my road-running training plan failed me miserably? I break to sit on a rock; when I stand up there’s a huge wet spot from my sweat-soaked pants.

View from one of my many sit-down breaks.

A little further up, I find a backless, lopsided wooden bench and sit down again. I realize that what my body deeply wants to do is go to sleep. Right there. I have never felt this while hiking before, especially after only a handful of miles. I feel worried — will I be able to make it to camp before dark? Will I make it to camp at all? I message Cyn to let her know that my “in camp for the night” message might arrive very late in her time zone.

I keep going, needing more frequent breaks as I climb. A lot of the trail is crowded by thick scrubby bushes that I have to forcefully push past. I see a giant pile of bear scat. My legs feel like no blood or oxygen is getting to them at all, even though I can feel how hard my pulse is beating. I take another sit-down, pack-off break to eat. But my mouth is so dry that I have no saliva. My food tastes fine but I can’t eat more than a few bites — I can barely swallow.

I resort to mental trickery: go to the next switchback, go 50 steps, go for two minutes, and then you can rest. When there’s no shade or no rock to sit on, I bend at the waist and lean on my trekking poles, just trying to recuperate enough to go to the next switchback. I begin to look around for stealth camping options, in case I can’t finish the climb — but there’s nothing. I’ve been winding steadily up and around the mountain all afternoon, with nothing even remotely flat in sight.

Looking back over Lake Chelan.

I see more bear scat — it’s not recent, I but I call “hey bear” anyway and am surprised to find my voice is barely there. I’m losing my voice?! What is happening? I call again. It sounds pitiful.

Finally I reach the last set of three switchbacks. I whisper to myself, trying to psyche myself up to get through them, mumbling about precisely when I can take breaks. I try to just keep moving, even at a glacial pace. I’ve never walked so slowly. All I want in the world is to lie down and sleep.

At last, I crest Purple Pass. It’s around 7:30pm with (I estimate) still at least an hour of daylight left. A chubby marmot perches on one of the wide flat rocks near the sign, but scampers off as I approach and sit heavily. I drink more water. It’s never enough, and I still don’t have any saliva, even though I’ve consumed about a gallon this afternoon, including two cups of electrolytes. I briefly consider trying to camp up here, but it looks like my actual campsite is just a little bit flat and downhill, so I chance it.

Purple Pass

As soon as I move over the pass, I’m in shade. I feel a little better. The trail meanders downhill, and I feel a little better still. The knowledge that I’m almost at camp also helps me pick up the pace. And then there’s the sign for Juanita Lake camp. I throw my pack down at the first site I see. Mosquitos are swarming, so I pull on my bug net and start setting up the tent. I get all four corners staked out, but when I stand up to retrieve my trekking poles, I have the unmistakeable feeling that I’m going to pass out. “No no no,” I mutter weakly, dropping to my hands and knees. I lie on top of my flat tent for a few minutes, then carefully put up the poles. I’m so glad I brought my bear can, even though it’s heavier, because I can just chuck it over to the side and not think about it. I crawl into my tent and slowly set up my bedding. I’m too exhausted to eat, brush my teeth, or make notes for the blog. Once I lie down, I am asleep in an instant.

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