Thanks to the cold and the late night preceding, I only started packing up at sunrise. But it didn’t take too long, and I was out and hiking by 8. Phoenix and Owl did not catch me up.
After an hour and a number of encounters with weekenders, I had made it to the junction near the top of Bald Mountain. Based on the comments on Guthook, I thought that following the Timberline Trail here would be more interesting than the PCT. And it did turn out to be exactly that.
But there is a reason that “May your life be long and interesting” is considered a curse. And the Timberline Trail was that kind of interesting.
The first two miles or so were amazing, filled with views of the valley and then three easy crossings of the headwaters of the Muddy Fork. I could even see that the other side of the valley had a number of trees fallen on it, and expected it to get somewhat technical coming back up. But the PCT was supposed to have downed trees on it as well, and I had come through a few miles of tree falls the day before with only a few hours lost, so I grit my teeth and dove in.
It turns out I had severely underestimated the difficulty of the problem before me. And I’m using problem in the sense that climbers use it here. Because for the next nine hours, I did hardly any hiking at all. It was a lot more like caving, and even when I could momentarily find the trail, it lasted only a dozen feet at most before I had to resort to climbing, crawling, beam walking, backtracking, detouring, sliding, hanging, falling, and diverting yet again.
As the sun disappeared and a thick fog set in, the jumble got so thick and impenetrable that I had no choice but to descend hundreds of feet down the hill from the trail and scramble and slide across the crumbling hill. Eventually, covered in mud, blood, and cuts the scabs of which would still be around a month later, I hit a wall of thorny plants and had crawl straight up a waterfall to find the trail again.
Soon, I found myself at the mouth of the valley again, about two miles from where I had entered the fray nine hours before. It was pouring rain at this point, but I didn’t want to get out my pack cover/rain jacket because it would have been shredded by the obstacle course. So I and my pack were as much mud and water as fabric by this point.
After a somewhat easier quarter mile down into the next valley, I hit another tree that was going to force me way off the trail and said to myself “I just cannot do one more tree tonight.” I set up my tent right in the middle of the trail in front of that tree and got in out of the rain as quickly as possible. I changed into the dry clothes from deep in my pack and crawled into my sleeping bag before even starting to cook.
I was just about to finish cooking when someone else came past my tent and back again. Turns out I wasn’t the only one dumb enough to push through on that particular section of trail that day. But clearly this guy was more tenacious than me and pushed on into the night. I apologized for setting up on the trail, even though it was impossible to stay on the trail in that spot anyway.
I can tell you, after the most difficult day of hiking to date, it wasn’t hard to sleep that night.
Total distance: 7 miles? Maybe less?
Trail progress: 7 miles
Average pace: Almost 2 hours per mile!
Average pace on the difficult part: 4.5 hours per mile!