Pacific Crest Trail, Washington (Day 6, August 2016)
Updated: Mar 27, 2019
Sixth day of an 80 mile section hike from near the Oregon border to White Pass, Washington. Hiking Cispus Pass and Packwood Glacier within Goat Rocks Wilderness, lands of the Yakama people. This was easily the best day of hiking in my life so get ready for lots of mountain ridge photos.
[A portion of this post first appeared on the Ruffwear Dog Blog. Full disclosure: Ruffwear provided Elu's pack and coat free of charge for this trip. They're not the lightest weight or the best fitting, but they're durable and got us out into the Washington backcountry so I'm very grateful. I recommend Ruffwear as a decent starter pack and their harness work very well for longer dogs. If you need something for a longer haul, look into getting a custom Groundbird Gear pack and harness. That's what we upgraded to in 2018,]
We woke at first light and packed up our campsite as quietly as possible, trying not to wake our neighbors at Sheep Lake. The next few miles of trail were blissfully quiet as we passed tents near the trail then walked to Cispus Pass just as the sun was beginning to rise over the mountains. After leaving Sheep Lake and heading north to Cispus Pass, we had miles of trails to ourselves for as far as I could see in any direction.
An incredible wall of columnar basalt formed by cooling lava is found along the Pacific Crest Trail at mile 2268. Elu and I walked by them in the early morning and it felt magical to be the only ones out on the trail. Camping isn’t allowed within the Yakama Reservation, so we didn’t see another person until Cispus Pass.
The most stunning views were yet to come. As we walked across Cispus Pass, the whistles of marmots were heard from every direction and snowmelt streams ran right over the trail.
Of course we had to stop for trail selfies! We were both stoked to be hiking such an amazing section of trail. Wildflowers! Marmots! So many sights and smells.
Sitting on a stack of rocks next to the trail just south of Packwood Glacier, I stared at an alpine lake in the distance and thought about how we'd gotten there. Elu laid in the shade of the rocks resting. An ice axe was at my feet next to my stuffed pack. I'd carried it 60 miles from where we started on the Pacific Crest Trail near the Oregon border six days before, sometimes in 90-degree weather, all the while cursing its extra weight.
A signpost marked the Old Snowy Mountain Alternate Route and I spent a minute considering that option. It would be a safer hike, avoiding the glacier crossing, but the detour would add several miles onto our route. Elu liked to be in camp napping by 1 pm, when the summer sun started to scorch. I took another look at the scree up ahead, large rocks that shift under your feet as you walk, then the glacier just a few yards beyond. The trail was marked in footsteps along the steep and snowy embankment. I gathered my courage and took a deep breath.
“Okay, Elu. It’s time to get moving,” I said.
As she stood up and stretched, I strapped my pack onto my back. Next, I attached the handle of Elu’s leash to my waist strap and clipped the other end of the lead to the D-ring of her harness. With the ice axe in my right hand and a hiking pole in my left, I pointed toward the glacier and said, “Let’s go.” Elu understood the signal and began trotting toward the snow. She was reluctant to step off of the rocks and down onto the slippery, mushy cold.
I pointed again and said more sternly, “Let’s go!” She leapt down onto the glacier and slid a few inches, scrambling to get her feet underneath her. I lowered myself behind her onto the icy trail and dug my ice axe into the high side of the slope just ahead of us. Elu slowly walked a few feet ahead and I took tiny steps, planting my hiking pole into the snow on the low side then pulling out the axe and anchoring it another few feet in front of us.
I looked down the talus slope, and the steep descent over jutting rocks ended in more rocks and another incline on the opposite side. If we were to fall, we’d be lucky to get away with a helicopter rescue and just broken bones. I pushed that thought out of my mind and focused on Elu.
She was moving slowly and steadily a couple feet in front of me along the trail. We continued along the path, anchored by the ice axe one one side and my hiking pole on the other. As the trail lead up an incline, Elu began slipping back towards me. Her paws couldn’t find purchase on the slick snow and she didn’t weigh enough to dig her claws in. With my right hand firmly on the planted ice axe, I grabbed her by the handle on her harness before she could slip off the trail and drag me with her. I hoisted her 50 pound body by the harness and up the steep section. We made one last push with our legs pumping and scrambled up a snowy embankment and onto the scree path.
Once back on the rocks, I told Elu, “You did such a good job, puppa! You were amazing!”
I hugged her tightly and she wiggled and wagged her tail with delight. I used to be a military diver, but this glacier crossing with a heavy pack was one of the most dangerous things I’d ever done. I kissed Elu on the nose then kissed my ice axe, thankful that I carried it all those miles for this 100-yard stretch of glacier.
One last section of scree required our intense concentration to foot placement, then we stopped to get a drink of water. I awarded Elu the status of Epic Adventure Dog.
After our exciting crossing of Packwood Glacier, we were rewarded with the most incredible views of Mount Rainier and the Pacific Northwest.
We hiked along the rocky Knife Edge trail and saw mountain goats on the slopes.
The trail was so narrow with steep drop offs that I slowed to a one mile per hour pace while Elu trotted ahead a little ways, keeping me in sight and staying to the trail. I was really glad to have my hiking poles through this section, but she was still far more agile on four paws.
The trail led a few miles along the mountain ridge and down to a beautiful meadow full of lupine and gurgling snowmelt streams.
We set up camp in a sandy area at the top of a steep rocky cliff near a copse of trees that felt like it was perched at the edge of the world. The stream ran right off a cliff behind our campsite.
Elu and I rested in the sun all afternoon; I listened to an audiobook while she napped then we got up for an afternoon dip in the snowmelt creek.
The campsite and sunny afternoon was the perfect end to an incredible day of hiking in Goat Rocks Wilderness.
Day 6: 11 miles
From Sheep Lake in Goat Rocks Wilderness and into Yakama tribal lands, across Cispus Pass, Packwood Glacier, and the Knife Edge down to a valley campsite.
Total up: 2735 feet/ down 2480 feet.
Camped at PCT MP 2277, elevation 6,006 feet.