In June of 2015 our Choose Mountains Ambassador Stuke Sowle got his first taste of Section J of the PCT. He promised himself at the time he would be back to complete the entire 75 mile section. That promise was fulfilled in November of this year as he made the traverse of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in 36 hours. Here is his story:
Eight weeks removed from the Wonderland and I found myself itching for one more big adventure before winter arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Truth be told, the air around me seemed negative in those final months leading to the election. I needed to break away, to regain perspective, balance, and a sense of something greater. I knew it had to be a route that challenged me and would present me with an opportunity to find seclusion. I had thought that recent snowfall in late October and early November had signaled the end of any endeavors that included higher altitudes, but then we had a mini heat wave and most of the snow melted off below 6,000’. I pulled out maps, tinkered with loops but was not satisfied with what I was creating. None of it seemed that inspired.
Then it hit me. A section of one of the most popular trails in the U.S, if not the world. A section renowned for its high traverses, rugged mountain peaks, alpine lakes and isolation. A 75 mile stretch of trail that did not go over a single road. With a short window of time to complete it, this section of trail would challenge me specifically as I was still nursing an injury that left me incapable of running. It would give me the opportunity to show just how much ground a human can cover just walking. Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail.
A last minute, late season, impromptu journey into the depths of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. I floated the idea to my girlfriend and when she said she would be happy to be my shuttle service I knew I had found my adventure. Sure the forecast looked pretty lousy for my two day window and I had fallen a bit out of shape but, that would just add to the challenge. Fortunately in the days leading up to my departure, the forecast improved and it appeared that I would have at least one dry day out there. This was the cherry on top of my 2016!
Pulling into the parking lot at the trailhead just off Interstate 90 I was pleased to see just one car in the beam of my headlights. While the Wonderland had been an experience that I wouldn’t change a thing about, I wanted this to be a much more solitary journey. One car meant that few were ahead of me of the section, perhaps traveling up to the Kendall Katwalk, a very popular destination on the PCT about six miles from the trailhead. I checked my watch noting that it was already growing lighter and was a tad disappointed that it was already 6:30 in the morning. I had hoped to travel the first three or four miles in darkness as I was very familiar with this portion of the trail and would rather have the daylight on the end of the day when I was traveling in a landscape unfamiliar to me.
I chugged the last of my coffee as I shouldered my pack. The weight was more than I was used to but it felt comfortable on my shoulders. I turned on my headlamp and made my way to the sign at the trailhead, stopping to take a picture before hitting the trail. Interstate 90 was a dull roar below me as I made a steady pace through the old growth forest above the pass. Everything took on a monotone shade in the pale light filtering through an overcast sky. Immediately I noticed that I was having trouble corralling my thoughts, it felt like I was trying to herd cats in my head. I attempted to shut it all out, to focus on each step but that effort only seemed to succeed in making my thoughts even more tangled.
Frustrated I kept on. I tried a new tactic of focusing on my pace. First mile, 17:39. Second mile, 17:42. Third mile, 17:45…
I went over my strategy for the section as I did this. I knew I wanted to split the 75 miles in half, finding a place to bivy down for the night near mile 37. Getting some rest before waking up a couple of hours prior to first light and pacing myself to finish right around 7 PM the following night. I saw no reason to hurry and just sit at the pass waiting for Jennifer to arrive but I also wanted to ensure that I was on the trail moving during all the daylight I would have.
My mind began to quiet. To my left I could see Guye Peak and Snoqualmie Mountain. Passing the junction with the Commonwealth Basin trail, I stashed my headlamp. I admired the sky, an array of gray and blue tones that looked like hard cold stone. My pace brisk but not hurried, my breathing settling into a uniform rhythm. The untidy explosion of random thoughts began to unravel, each unneeded conversation with myself slowly floating out of my mind.
I walked through the narrow section of trail known as the Kendall Katwalk. Completed in 1979, this 150 yard section of the PCT was blasted out of a steeply sloped section of granite near the ridgeline. To my right lay Rampart Ridge and to the east a temperature inversion forced a layer of clouds to hug the valley floor below me. I was headed into the heart of the 615 square mile Alpine Lakes Wilderness. At this altitude there is little tree cover and as such the views are unimpeded. In the far distance I could see the trail below Chikamin Ridge and going over Chikamin Pass, nearly seven trail miles away. Mount Thompson jut into the sky on my left as I made my way past Ridge and Alaska Lakes. Every turn of the head was rewarded with magnificent views of alpine lakes, craggy peaks and rocky ridges. Some autumn colors could be seen desperately clinging to the mountainsides but for the most part it appeared as though the land was accepting that winter was right around the corner.
At about 11:00 AM, I took the last few steps up to Needle Sight Gap, at nearly 6,000’ this spot has commanding views of Glacier Peak, the Olympics and Mount Rainier. It also marked the furthest I had traveled on the PCT the summer before. From here the trail turns SE as it is confronted by Chikamin Peak and the bulk of Lemah Mountain. I coasted along this high alpine traverse soaking in the incredible views to the south and west while admiring the jagged ridge above me. I had completely dropped the last of my meandering thoughts and was in my natural state, moving efficiently and engaged in the present.
I topped out on Chikamin Pass near mile 14 and gazed down into the Park Lakes area. A beautiful sub-alpine plateau surrounded by Three Queens, Four Brothers and Box Ridge. In the far distance I could see the granite behemoth Mount Stuart cutting into the sky. At 9,415’ tall it is the highest point in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. I quickly descended the trail and weaved my way through the park. Up until this point the trail had been quite technical so I took advantage of the buffed out track to gain some time. Further motivation to quicken my pace came when I ran across a very large deposit of bear scat on the trail. Needless to say my head was on a swivel when I made my way around the bowl.
Then BAM! Laid out before me was the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in one view. Savage mountains knifed their way upwards, while hanging glaciers clung to their steep sides. Waterfalls cascaded down sheer rock slopes into steeply carved canyons. Below me Spectacle Lake, even under the cloud cover was a brilliant deep blue, reflecting the towering mountains surrounding it in its calm waters. I was taken with the duality of the what my eyes were seeing. A brutal inhospitable terrain that felt almost menacing and I couldn’t help but be drawn to it. Feeling that I was a part of it and knowing that it had a part in me.
The creation of these mountains began somewhere around 50 million years ago in the late Eocene Epoch when the North American Plate crashed into the Pacific Plate, creating episodes of volcanic igneous activity. Over two million years ago glacial advancing and retreating scoured the area leaving deposits of rock debris and carving “U” shaped valleys throughout the landscape. These factors have culminated in the high peaks and deep valleys so dominant in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
I took it all in for a few minutes before reminding myself I had at least twenty more miles to cover that day and it was after noon. Now began 2,000’, switchbacks for the majority, to the valley floor. Sometime during these switchbacks I was interrupted by the only other humanencounter during my trip. A chance meeting with “Sir Hikes-A-Lot” whom I had read and heard much about. I enjoyed our visit as we passed over a variety of topics and found it fitting that we would meet here on this remote stretch of trail. Making my way through an old burn area I noted I still had a big climb and descent ahead of me before getting to the area of Waptus Lake which was near the halfway point. I pushed my pace on the flat sections of trail in the valley.
BRIDGE OUT. Not exactly the words I wanted to see as I passed the junction with the Lemah Meadow Trail. I hoped that I would be able to find a way across the water without getting too wet. A mile later I came to the bridge and quickly realized, I was getting wet. I kicked myself mentally for not thinking this through more. In the summer heat, wet feet dry quickly especially in lighter trail runners, fording streams and smaller rivers can just be a minor nuisance. This late in the season with rain in the forecast, getting wet feet was a larger issue. I had plenty of room in my pack for sandals or thongs but had not brought them along. Frustrated with myself, I plunged into the Lemah without even considering making a barefoot attempt. Reaching the other side, constantly cursing under my breath, I sat down on a log and squeezed my socks out. Not a mile further and I had to ford another smaller drainage.
Still mumbling under my breath I began the climb out of the valley towards Escondido Ridge. With just 2,000’ of gain in five miles I assumed the climb would be fairly easy but I found it to be much more of a grind than I bargained for. I felt like I was crawling from switchback to switchback when, in truth I was hitting 18 minute miles all the way up. Like the section across the valley, these slopes were marred by burned trees which give the area a kind of desolate beauty. Again, the hulking dark peaks to the west were constantly in view and I would take a moment at each switchback to appreciate a higher viewpoint of their flanks.
Eventually I made the top of the ridgeline by maneuvering through patches of snow left over from the first storm of the year. Being above 5,000’ yet again I was able to get wide views in nearly all directions as I traversed the ridgeline for a couple of miles. Skirting tarns under a brooding sky I became very aware of the thin orangish glowing streak just above the horizon. Daylight was nearing an end. I fished out my headlamp ten hours into the day, and at mile 30 the world collapsed around me and darkness won over. The five mile descent into the Waptus Drainage went by in a blur with the ever increasing sound of the river being my only gauge to the distance I was traveling.
After crossing the Waptus River bridge at mile 35 I began to put some thought into where I could bivy for the night. Above me through the tree cover I would catch glimpses of the moon and considered lengthening my day to take advantage of the continuing dry weather. I stuck with my original plan, at the junction with the Spade Lake Trail I cut south towards some campsites marked on the map on the shores of Waptus Lake. After descending a steep, short section of trail that unfortunately got my pelvis injury fired up in angry protest, I came across some campsites that I felt would make do. I broke out my sleeping bag and bivy sack, took off my wet clothes and crawled into my little self made cocoon. One would think that the effort a 38 mile day would sufficiently wear one out to promptly go to sleep but, this was not the case. I tossed and turned for hours before finally falling into a fitful sleep.
Sometime during the night I was woken by the pitter patter of rain hitting the bivy sack. I burrowed deeper into my bag, appreciative that it was keeping me dry and warm. Eventually the rain fell hard enough to make sleeping impossible. I groped around for my headlamp and checked my watch: 04:30. Good enough for me. I managed to get myself dressed without getting too wet, but wincing a bit when I put my sore feet into my cold wet shoes. I knew it would take a few miles but that they would feel better once I got moving. Within 20 minutes I was up and moving and munching on a cold bean burrito for breakfast.
The world around me was surreal, a mixture of fine light rain, my breath condensing in the air and there were remnants of a star filled sky above me. I would see brief flashes of the moon reflecting off the lake and was struck with a feeling of complete isolation. An intense solitude that many find unnerving but for me brought on a feeling of liberation. More frequently than I would have liked, this silence was broken by the sound of a passenger plane flying overhead. Still, I was rewarded with long bouts of quiet interrupted only by the wind blowing through the treetops and the small waterways that would grow louder until my crossing before fading out behind me when my steps carried me off. 42 miles in and the soreness of my feet was forgotten. I closed in on Deep Lake and traveled into the second dawn of this journey.
Emerging from a forest of hemlock and fir I strolled into the depression of Deep Lake. Memories came to me of looking down upon this area in August of last year while climbing Mount Daniel with my Dad. Tents had been scattered all around the lake edge as thru hikers made their way north on this final stretch of the the PCT. That day has been incredibly hot as we climbed the mountain in just running shorts and tanktops. I forded the outlet and once again stopped to wring out my socks. I found myself sitting on a log, my bare feet on the ground below me, cold feet forgotten as I watched the swirling clouds mingle with the trees above me. A mixture of gray and green colors, punctuated by the dark form of Cathedral rock towering above. Raindrops hitting the trail, lake and my shell put me into a kind of trance.
Deep lake is just one of over 700 lakes and mountain ponds that are located in this Wilderness area. It also ecompasses over 300 miles of Forest Service class one and two streams and the headwaters of or at least a portion of them of the Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Wenatchee, and Yakima Rivers. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness plays a crucial role in domestic water use in the surrounding areas. With a growing population this area is critical in providing an adequate supply of clean water.
I brought my thoughts back into the present. This day was just beginning and I needed to get moving again despite how magical this place was. Back on with the wet shoes. I noticed that my blister protection was starting to fail on my heels. There wasn’t much I could do about it at this point, having already burned through all my blister packs. Setting off, I began the first long climb of the day to Cathedral Pass, 1,200’ above me. With the trail leading back into the forest, I was protected from the rain and winds as they picked up. My legs felt fatigued and stiff and I was confident that they would warm up on this uphill march. I was thankful for my Marmot shell, and Mountain Hardwear rain pants as they kept the precipitation at bay. Increasingly important items as the temperature dropped and I climbed in altitude.
I could hear waterfalls roaring in the distance to the west and would catch brief glimpses of them through the clouds but, for the most part my views were very limited and my eyes were drawn to those things close at hand. Small babbling brooks, colorful mushrooms and and the bright green lichen that cling to the trees at this altitude. I will freely admit that I have little knowledge of plant or tree species, preferring to spend my time studying maps or to be immersed in Nature instead of pouring over field guides. Just as I was beginning to wonder how long the trail would drag out the 1,200’ of gain to Cathedral Pass, I broke out of the treeline and began to see patches of snow. I spotted the junction with the trail to Peggy’s Pond and knew that I was near the pass.
At 5,600’ I topped and was completely socked in. I just kept moving unable to see the sweeping views around me, choosing instead to remember them from experience. The snow on the east and north facing slopes was much more significant and I found myself sloshing through large patches of wet, slushy snow covering the trail. Even completely soaked, my feet remained warm. At mile 47, not far from the pass, I crossed the junction with the Cathedral Pass Trail. Prevalent at the junction was a sign stating another difficult fordtwo miles ahead. This was no surprise to me. My guidebook had made note of this ford on the newer PCT route. However, from my interpretation the ford was nothing too risky and I chose to keep on the PCT at this point and forego the five or so mile detour. I did grab a trekking “stick” to aid with the ford as I began the five mile traverse towards Deception Pass. The rain continued unabated as I attempted to avoid the slushy bits of trail as best as I could. I was mostly unsuccessful.
I must say I felt some trepidation thinking ahead to this noted ford as I dropped in altitude. I felt committed at this point. Open alpine benches gave way to islands of forest between avalanche chutes with the occasional talus field. The low clouds lifted giving me a view of Hyas Lake to my east and the ridgeline on the other side of the valley. I heard a drainage roaring down the mountain and noted that I was near two miles from the warning sign. Rounding a bend I came into a view of the crossing and was puzzled by the ease of the crossing at first glance. Nothing hazardous here, just a run of the mill stream crossing. I shrugged and quickly made my way across, leaving my fording stick leaning on a log after finishing. Thinking the obstacle complete, my worries were lifted and I quickened my pace remembering I still had more than a marathon distance to cover.
At mile 50 I emerged from a batch of trees and as I crossed another section covered in alder slide, it was impossible to miss ahead of me a steeper portion of the mountain with some very large drainages roaring down, their sources hidden high in the clouds above. I could quickly see that the trail would intersect these and I realized that I had not yet arrived at the ford in question. Apprehension set in again and I could sense that the day of significant rain had increased the volume of this mountain creek to a level worthy of concern. I closed in on the crossing and was confronted with a raging waterway plunging out of a cleft in the cliff face above me.
“Well, shit. I should have probably kept that stick.”
I had two channels to cross with the nearest one looking the easiest. By easiest I mean, most narrow. The current was strong enough to knock me over and take me downstream. This would be a disaster. My celebration of solitude took on a different tone knowing that a mistake here could have grave consequences. I kicked myself again for forgetting my SPOT on the couch. Finding what looked to be the narrowest spot as the water surged between two boulders, I made a running start and jumped. While I’m not Michael Jordan by any means, I made it with plenty of room to spare. Both of my feet immediately went out from under me and I was sliding down the side of the boulder into the water. Fortunately I was able to grab the edge of the rock with both hands and heave myself up and to safety.
Now soaked from the waist down, I roved the middle bank looking for a chink in the armor of this turbulent waterway. At its narrowest point, the water pushed up on the far bank against a cliff that I would be unable to negotiate once I crossed. However, once free from the confines of the cliff the creek turned into a waterfall nearly 30 feet tall that looked impossible to cross. It just felt like too much risk to attempt a crossing there. In hindsight what is interesting to me is that I didn’t consider turning around and backtracking during this time. My mind was completely focused on the task at hand. I knew that careful study would find a way with minimized risk. Then I spotted it, a small niche in the cliff above the waterfall that looked as though I could shimmy through and then down on the far side of the bank. Once across I would have to downclimb about ten feet of wet slabby rock but, a fall there looked like it would only wound my pride.
I didn’t hesitate and began to wade thigh deep through the water towards the notch. Mid-stream boulders helped me to keep my leverage but now my arms and hands were completely soaked. I was able to keep on my feet and on the far side of the bank, down climbed a few boulders to safely arrive at the slab. From there, having no grip whatsoever with my feet, I lowered myself to the far side of the bank using only handholds. I scrambled up a few yards of scree to the trail, looked back at the crossing at let out a shout of joy.
I took a quick video of the area and realized I was shaking a bit. Not from the adrenaline but from being wet, very wet. Now I faced a new challenge: keeping warm. The next five miles from Deception Pass to Pieper Pass were spent concentrating on fighting off hypothermia. Swinging my arms, doing a little jogging on the plush carpet like trail in this area, consuming food and gels despite not being hungry, any little trick I could think of. As I climbed up towards Pieper Pass at nearly 6,000’ the wind was gusting strong but, the elevation gain was warming me up quickly. Looking around at the terrain I thought I might have a chance at getting some reception on my phone so I turned it off airplane mode and fired off a message to my mom and Jennifer. “Less than 20 miles”, “Cold but moving well”. Imagining them getting the messages put a smile on my face and buoyed my spirits.
Then I crossed over from west to east on Pieper Pass and immediately forgot about my discomforts. Below me in a deep bowl were Glacier and Surprise Lakes, around which rose rocky parapets. A huge grin covered my face and the Type 2 fun was over. Then the rain quit falling, and blue sky started to make its presence felt. “Can this even be happening?” I asked myself. The smiling continued as dropped down into the glacially carved valley, taking in all the little nuances of the terrain around me. Quickly glancing at my map I noted that I had another pass to climb on the far side of the valley that looked like it offered equally impressive views. I pushed on, wanting to make sure I saw the deep valley of Trapper Creek which feeds into Icicle Creek heading eastward towards some of the most magnificent mountains of the state, in the daylight.
Rising above Surprise Lake as I crossed large talus and boulder fields, the sun shined down on me and I soaked up its warm rays. I was struck with a similar feeling I had on the Wonderland of not wanting the journey to end. That the discomforts I felt were of little consequence when compared to the rush of joy and happiness in the moment. The feeling of doing exactly what I was meant to do and by doing so, no happier place could be found.
A short steep climb found me atop Trap Pass, breathless from the climb and the sweeping landscapes. I was 500’ above Trap Lake, the source waters tumbling down from the ridges above. The lake feeding Trapper Creek makes a four mile journey to the confluence of Icicle Creek. Far in the distance the sun shone brightly on the clouds that were lingering over the Chiwaukum Range. Tailing right below the ridgeline to the west I could see the PCT for a couple of miles as it wound towards Hope Lake.
I followed the trail below this ridgeline, head craned to my right taking in all that I could as the sun began to sink below the irregular silhouette created by the mountains and crags cradling Trap Lake. The trail here was less technical, giving my sore calves a break and allowing me to gawk more freely. I passed from bench to bench between stands of trees admiring the muted oranges and yellows that were enhanced by the sun and clouds, a giant filter on the landscape. Downward to Hope Lake, the air began to chill and the glowing autumn vegetation turned drab as the sun disappeared below the western horizon. Meandering through the forest I to the shore of Mig Lake. Minutes later, the world became dark on the second dusk of my trip.
I admired the openness of the area surrounding this small lake and expected to finally see some wildlife, sadly, another day passed without a sighting. This seemed strange to me considering the remote location. I begrudgingly dug my headlamp out of my jacket pocket and turned it on. As if on cue, the rain began to fall again and my world was confined again to the small area illuminated by my light. Another climb started and the weather worsened. Wind and fog combined with the rain turned everything otherworldly and I felt myself get somewhat disoriented not being able to see any landmarks, trusting in the trail in front of me to lead me towards my destination.
About seven miles out I turned my phone on again and messaged Jennifer that I was closing in. She quickly messaged back saying she was just leaving Seattle. Suddenly my feeling of solitude and isolation ended as I felt like I was being pulled back into civilization. I pushed on through the ugly weather, my gear once again up to the task of protecting me. I marched onwards with my head down for the most part, concentrating on my foot placement. Passing the junction with Icicle Creek trail I began to let myself think about what I was close to accomplishing. A 75 mile traverse through some very remote portions of our state late in the year. While I wasn’t setting a speed record, I knew that doing it in a 36 hour window was a feat not easily achieved.
The rain stopped again and the moon fought to break through the clouds. Out of the gloom the shape of power line materialized. The straight lines and form of the tower looked alien to my eyes after seeing only natural shapes the past two days on the trail. This was followed by a chairlift and some rough roads before making my way up to the final climb of the section. It was a short climb and I could finally see the lights of Stevens Pass, all that remained was a two mile drop to the trailhead a little less than a thousand feet below.
Like the Wonderland, I was hit with a wave of emotions during that final couple of miles. Though I had been out for only 36 hours, it felt as if it had been longer. I played out in my head that I had just walked through the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, from one major pass to another while crossing paths with only one other human. At moments like these, putting this all into perspective is difficult, that always comes later and sometimes as in this case, weeks later. In the moment I cherished the final steps, even on sore legs and blistered feet leading to the trailhead. I leaned up against the sign at the trailhead and another smile broke out on my face. And just like the Wonderland, I knew that I would be back again next year at that moment.
Jennifer’s warm car felt like paradise when she arrived shortly after. Despite a brief wait, once I stopped moving my body had begun shaking again. Quickly I began to fall asleep and it seemed like only minutes before I was back at her place soaking in a hot shower before stuffing my face with food. In the days following, physically I felt little after effects other than the nasty blisters on my heels, and while mentally I felt better than I had leaving the trailhead at Snoqualmie, I couldn’t help but feel the effects of a post-adventure hangover. While the trip had served to re-center my balance and flush a feeling of negativity out of me, I still needed some time to adjust back to civilized surroundings. Even though I had only been out for 36 hours, they had been eventful and of a quality I had seldom seen before. While I have been successful in expanding both my physical and mental focus while out in the wilderness, I still have much room for improvement in the decompression afterwards.
It must also be noted that as I did research in preparation for writing this, I became increasingly aware of just how close we came to not having this protected land available to us at all. After a long bitter battle, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a fairly new designation, having been established on July 12, 1976 by President Ford. Further expansions have been added on since that time, but a struggle continues to protect areas like the Pratt River Valley, with bills introduced to protect that river stalling in Congress. We nature lovers and conservationists have a responsibility to be vigilant, adding our support in any way possible to ensure these wild places are protected for the generations to come. We cannot allow the shortsightedness so prevalent in our society to dictate how these lands are used and managed. These lands are a national resource of the future to be enjoyed by the many, not just temporary local commodities to be exploited by a few.
Choose Mountains Ambassador: Washington