MOUNT ST. HELENS: Fire and Ice

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterThe last light of a clear winter day brings a sculpture of pink and blue to the snows of Mount St. Helens

33 years after the eruption that blew the top off Mount St. Helens, the volcano is quiet, with some visible wisps of smoke and ash coming from the crater. It will probably blow up again, but the next major eruption could be decades or centuries in the future. Nobody knows.

Meanwhile, there are lava fields and pumice plains and cave trails to explore. We have made frequent visits to the popular viewpoints in summer, but we had never ventured to Mount St. Helens in the winter, so we thought it would be a good idea to escape the gray winter clouds of Puget Sound for a day of snowshoeing.

Sun Burning through Fog in Conifer Forest near Mount St. HelensWhen we drove up from the coastal lowlands of Washington, we emerged from the layer of clouds that so often blankets the region in winter; I stopped here to photograph the godbeams streaming through the trees at this place of transition from murk to sun

Lone Pine Cemetery Has No OutletI love signs, so I stopped to photograph this amusing juxtaposition of signs along the route to the trailhead

Blue Glove in Plowed Snowbank at Mount St. HelensAt the parking lot, we saw this colorful glove sticking out of a plowed snowbank; I should have checked to make sure it wasn’t attached to someone

It turned out to be an ideal day in the mountains, with temperatures warm enough that some winter climbers were going shirtless. Not us. And we aren’t climbers–not in the sense of the scores of crampon-and-rope laden men and women we could see as tiny specs moving against the snow, high on the slopes above us. We’ll leave that experience for a younger generation.

We were content with our snowshoe hike to June Lake, a tiny lake fed by a waterfall tucked next to a bouldery lava field part way up the mountain. The first mile of the trail was noisy, as we shared the route with snowmobiles who zipped by at warp speed. Then we diverged, and had a quiet climb to ourselves and other snowshoers.

Waterfall at June Lake at Mount St. HelensTiny June Lake, with its dead trees and waterfall; I ventured out onto the ice to get some photographs and was lucky that I didn’t fall through

Dead Trees along Shore of June Lake at Mount St. HelensReflections in June Lake

Lake Creek near June Lake at Mount St. HelensStream tumbling down the mountain from June Lake

Snow had fallen off the trees in a high wind, so the forest itself didn’t possess the magic of a fresh snowfall, though we did observe some Coyote and Snowshoe Hare tracks. When we went higher, we broke out into the open when we reached June Lake and its waterfall. There we had lunch, with our cheese and crackers and nuts and cookies spread out between us on the snow. An organized group of perhaps a dozen college students was having lunch there as well; except that they were also swirling and sipping Merlot from clear wine glasses.

After lunch, Karen made a snowman, while I snowshoed up a lava field to photograph boulders that were completely covered with snow. It was a glorious afternoon!

Happy Snowman at Mount St. HelensKaren’s happy snowman at June Lake

Shadow of Photographer on Snow at Mount St. HelensLee’s self portrait

The Worm Flows Lava Field Area of Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. HelensVolcanic boulders covered with snow, their blue shadows reflecting the blue sky 

Mount St. Helens provided a pleasant winter interlude that day, but on many winter days it is much more of a challenge. Recent climbers have talked of whiteout conditions and 40 mph winds and skiing down a sandpapery surface of pumice-covered snow.

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterLast pink light on the mountain (technically, this is not alpenglow, which occurs after the sun has set)

We started descending the trail in late afternoon. At a place where a vista toward the mountain opened up, we paused, and realized that there was the potential for some great light. The late afternoon light already sculpted the mountain, which was a nice change after the flat light earlier in the day. We decided that it was getting late enough that we might as well stay for the last light on this clear January day. We lingered, and photographed the last magenta light on the mountain as the sun descended. It made for an interesting end to a great day of snowshoeing in the Cascade Mountains, a day that had started with a desire to leave the gray skies of our Puget Sound home and get some sunlight.

After we photographed the last light on the mountain, we snowshoed out by headlamp. Snowmobiles whined by us in the darkness and one snowmobiler gave us a thumbs-up as we paused to let him pass.

Karen Rentz with Headlamp at Mount St. HelensKaren reaching the parking lot by headlamp

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is administered by Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Go to Mount St. Helens for more information. The Washington Trails Association has a trail description and map for this hike; go to June Lake Snowshoe.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.


View from the deck of Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout toward Mount Rainier

When I was studying forestry in college, a guy who shared a lot of my classes told me kinda, sorta jokingly that he thought I would end up manning a fire lookout tower. Yeah, he was essentially right: I was and will forever be introverted, and I am happy to be alone with my thoughts. Though I never was stationed on a fire tower, I could have been perfectly happy doing so, and would have followed in the tradition of beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, both of whom manned lookouts in the North Cascades of Washington State. Alas, spotter planes have replaced fire lookouts in most areas of America, so the option of being a fire lookout has closed in on those of us suited for the job.

Gobblers Knob Lookout sits atop a rocky promontory with terrific views into Mount Rainier National Park, and back toward the clearcut expanses of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

I have known a few fire lookouts, and they conformed to no real stereotypes. The first one I met was an elderly lady (probably about my current age!) who was staffing a lookout about 50 road miles from anywhere in California’s Lassen National Forest. At the time, I was a 19-year-old on a forest fire water tanker crew, and one of our routine jobs was to deliver water to that lookout, which lacked a nearby spring. When the lady lookout greeted us, she was wearing a dress and long white elbow-length dress gloves–which she considered to be the proper way to greet visitors. She certainly made an impression!

Fire lookouts in the past were sometimes the wives of firefighters, back before the US Forest Service routinely employed women on fire crews. Every morning we would hear the four or so lookouts announce that they were starting their workday on the radio that blared across the fire compound where I worked. I recall one lookout from Horse Ridge in California saying that the lady lookouts with the sexiest radio voices were often the most overweight (hey, a little snarky commentary is always fun!).

Several years ago, we encountered a young woman staffing a fire tower in Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. She hadn’t seen many fires that summer and, when I asked her what she really thought her job was, she said “public relations.” She was to put a good face on the Forest Service for all the hikers who came her way, and to establish a sense that someone really was caring for all the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. I envied her lifestyle: immediately after leaving her Forest Service temp job as a fire lookout, she was heading to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station for a long season working in the cold. She was having a series of lifetime adventures!

Fire lookout towers come in various configurations. When I was growing up in the Midwest, fire lookouts had to be tall to rise above the trees; they were set atop spindly steel towers that could rise roughly 100 feet tall. When I was younger, I had a fear of heights, and even on a calm day, I was afraid to climb all the stairs to the top of a tower. One time, when I was about 12 years old, I climbed several levels on the tower at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and was able to see a Black Bear foraging in a meadow below. But I didn’t like seeing the ground through the gridded metal stairsteps … it looked so far below that my boy’s legs wobbled.

Gobblers Knob is no longer staffed during each fire season, and is maintained now for historical reasons rather than fire fighting

When I was in college in 1970, attending a forestry summer session in the Upper Peninsula, my buddies and I drove from camp one evening to visit a nearby fire tower. Two of the guys climbed the tower to smoke marijuana while watching the sunset (as in “Oh wow, man”); the two of us who didn’t like heights stayed on the ground and didn’t toke. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was descend 120 metal steps at twilight after smoking dope! But my friends made it down without incident and appeared to have had one of those hippie spiritual experiences made possible by drugs.

Fortunately, I’ve outgrown my fear of heights and can now lean over cliffs to get a photograph whenever the opportunity arises. In fact, one time at Palouse Falls I almost took a step too far on an extremely steep and loose slope, but I’ll leave that story for another time.

Sunset reflecting in the Gobblers Knob lookout windows, looking toward Mount Rainier

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout is different from those Michigan lookouts. The cabin is about the same size, and they used the same Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint fires (in combination with other lookouts, the location of a fire was precise). The big difference lies in the location. Gobblers Knob commands a stunning location atop a rocky promontory right in the face of Mount Rainier. It doesn’t have to rise above the trees, because the rock it sits on rises above most of the trees. There is only one short set of stairs to climb–after sweating up over a thousand vertical feet of steep trail.

The Tahoma Glacier starts near the summit, which rises above 14,200′, and continues down the mountain to about the 5,500′ level, which is about the level I’m at while taking this photograph from Gobblers Knob Lookout

Gobblers Knob Lookout was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was among America’s best ideas; it put young men to work during the Great Depression and created much of the best rustic infrastructure of America’s national and state parks. The CCC, with camps run by the US Army, also installed discipline and a work ethic in hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men; some have argued that this training and discipline was a huge asset in winning WWII. Gobblers Knob Lookout was used to spot forest fires until after World War II, when it was largely replaced by spotter planes.

The lookout remains today, and it is considered an historic place by the National Park Service, so it is maintained. In fact, several years ago, the roof was crushed by heavy winter snows, but the lookout was rebuilt in its original form.

To get to the lookout, our group of six took a trail that skirted Lake Christine and led to Goat Lake, where we established our campsite. The day was unseasonably hot for Western Washington State, so we were glad to reach Goat Lake. We changed into swim trunks and went swimming in the subalpine lake that had sported melting ice just two weeks earlier. After swimming, we cooked an early dinner, hung our food to guard against bears, then four of us hiked up the steep trail to Gobblers Knob. Along this trail, we passed from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest into Mount Rainier National Park.

Our plan was to experience sunset at the lookout, then to descend the trail in the dark, by headlamp. We took careful note of landmarks along the trail so that we could follow the path without getting lost in the dark. All went well, but in the heat and steepness, I ran out of steam several hundred yards short of the fire lookout, and had to stop for an energy bar and some water.

The view from the lookout was astounding. It sits right in the face of the mountain, and caught the last light from the western sunset. The sky was clear, but we didn’t get the pink alpenglow we had hoped for, and had to be satisfied with the warm light reflecting beautifully off the peak. Before we knew it, dark descended. Two of our group went down the mountain ahead of Karen and I; by the time we decided to descend, we really did need the headlamps almost immediately. We had recently gotten a powerful new LED headlamp for Karen, and it gave us a sense of wonderful certainty about the trail in complete darkness. Based upon this experience, I suggest that anyone going into the back country should use as powerful a headlamp as possible.

Sunset on Mount Rainier from the lookout; what a wonderful place it would have been to spend the summer!

Subalpine trees silhouetted by the last light of sunset as we started our descent

After dark, we left the lookout and hiked down the trail 1.6 miles back to camp by headlamp; the only spooky moment was seeing the bright green eyeshine of a hiker’s dog looking back at us

On the way down the trail, we saw a light in the woods ahead. It turned out to be a young woman backpacking with her dog. She was resting on a log and had a sheen of sweat from the warm night; her dog was panting heavily. We asked if she had enough water for the dog, and she replied that she did, but that he was getting old and tended to overheat more on the trail. Her plan was to camp near the lookout that night, and she had about a mile to go. We made it back to camp without any problems, and quickly burrowed into our tent, where we lay atop our sleeping bags until we finallly cooled off enough to crawl inside.

The next morning, I took a cold swim in the lake, which refreshed me for the hike out. It was cold enough to encourage me to yelp with a combination of pleasure and pain. We stopped at Lake Christine, which had also recently melted out. Near the lakeshore, there was a meadow with the highest concentration of White Avalanche Lilies I have ever seen. These spectacular lilies start emerging through the melting snow, then quickly bloom with pristine white purity. There were also spectacular shooting stars and Columbia Tiger Lilies in this beautiful lunch spot.

The tranquil view from our campsite along Goat Lake; that is, until I disturbed the peace with my yelps upon entering the cold morning water!

The day grew ever hotter as we descended, but near the trailhead Karen spotted a yellow columbine. It turned out that this was a rare alternate color form of the familiar red-and-yellow columbine we normally see. At the trailhead, cold water in an ice chest was a wonderful pleasure.

Photographs from the trail:

The trail to Gobblers Knob leads past Lake Christine and through subalpine meadows filled with summer wildflowers

White Avalanche Lilies, which melt almost immediately after snowmelt, were the star wildflower attraction here

I have rarely seen wildflowers packed as densely as these spectacular White Avalanche Lilies; avalanche fields forever

Western Hemlocks and Western Red Cedars and Douglas Firs are among the big trees in the forest near Goat Lake

The green of Beljica Meadows viewed from Mount Beljica, site of another abandoned lookout that has vanished without a trace into the annals of U.S. Forest Service history

Dark-throated Shooting Star is a spectacular wildflower of these high wet meadows

Magenta Paintbrush blooming along the trail

A close view of White Avalanche Lily

Rare yellow form of the normally red-and-yellow columbine that graces the high forests of Washington State

For more information about Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout and the trail approaching it, go to:

Washington Trails Association Route Description (Note: this is the route we chose, and we added the side trip to Mount Beljica, which also gives a spectacular view of Mount Rainier)

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout (information and history)

There is an excellent recent book, Fire Season, by Philip Connors, that chronicles his life as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest during eight fire seasons. I just finished reading it, and enjoyed how he wove National Forest fire policy into the narrative.

Go to to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.

Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, 2008 The Goat Rocks Wilderness

2008_wa_11601Backpacker choosing an off-trail route down the snowfield below Elk Pass

There are places on earth to which my mind wanders in quiet moments, thinking back to great hikes through alpine wilderness. The Goat Rocks Wilderness is one of those places. The Goat Rocks are the remains of a 12,000 foot Cascades volcano that blew its top some two million years ago, leaving jagged peaks reaching to over 8,000 feet. Located in Washington State between two “living” volcanoes, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams, the Goat Rocks Wilderness is part of the Gifford Pinchot and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests. But enough geography. What I want to tell you about is one of the great hikes in America.

Five of us left the North Fork Tieton Trailhead at the start of Labor Day weekend, for a five day backpacking trip. I was the lone male with four ladies, including my wife, Karen, and friends Betty, Sue, and Joan. As we shouldered our packs, a group left just ahead of us on horseback, which would be an easier way to go if we had horses. We don’t. Plus I think my photography of natural details would suffer if I was always looking way down from the high perch of a horse.

The first part of the trail is a long, but gradual ascent to a ridge where the North Fork Tieton Trail meets the 2008_wa_12141Pacific Crest Trail (PCT, also known as Trail 2000). This trail leads through old-growth forest with huge hemlocks and firs; streams trickle down off the high ridges. When we reached the PCT, we turned left and marched toward the McCall Basin, where we planned to camp for four nights. Along this stretch of trail, we encountered a series of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, which I detailed in a previous blog entry Pickles, Seven, Money and More. 

We camped the first night in lower McCall Basin, along a bend in the North Fork Tieton River. In the subalpine meadows here, wildflowers bloomed late. On our previous hike to this basin on the same weekend some six years

2008_wa_10911Tieton Peak catching the last light above McCall Basin

before, we encountered only late gentians in bloom; this time, the wildflowers were at a peak of color. The snow must have melted out late this year. The mountains above McCall Basin were catching the alpenglow on this clear evening. As we drifted off to sleep, the trumpeting cries of a band of Elk drifted down from the nearby mountainsides.

The next morning we decided to move to a different campsite in what we call the Upper McCall Basin. While the lower McCall Basin is gentle and flat with beautiful meadows studded by pointy firs, the upper basin feels raw, as if the glaciers left just yesterday. It is a distinctly different experience to be up there, but it is lonely and has the feeling of real wilderness, where humans can only be visitors. We set up our new camp in a patch of woods, then set off to explore the upper basin.

2008_wa_46661A waterfall plunging into an ice cave in the cirque of Upper McCall Basin

The day was cold and windy with a threat of rain from low, gray clouds overhead, so layers of fleece and down and wind-blocking shells were the rule. With warm woolen hats knitted in Nepal. Again, we were surprised at the lush wildflowers still in bloom. Near a series of cliffs and waterfalls, we found a family of Hoary Marmots, 2008_wa_12261with three youngsters sitting on a big rock while the mother looked on nearby. Unfortunately, that was the only wildlife we saw in the basin, other that the freshly-picked bones of an Elk fawn. When we had hiked here six years ago, we counted 32 Mountain Goats and a band of 10 Elk. Later, back in camp, we met a man who reminded me of Moses; he carried a tall staff, had flowing gray hair, and was leading a flock of fellow hikers on a long day hike. We told him that we were disappointed at the lack of Mountain Goats. He then told us a long story, relating how a rogue hunter had entered the basin in early autumn six years before and had singlehandedly murdered an entire band of 44 Mountain Goats, leaving their carcasses to rot on the cold ground. He said that the authorities were still hoping that the killer would blab in some bar, bragging at what he had done, and would eventually be caught. Moses described this terrible story with such earnestness that we were all bummed for the entire weekend. Well, maybe that’s overstating our degree of bummedness, but we did indeed feel bad. Moses also told of hunters who had killed a 600 pound bear very close to where we made our camp. That put us on edge, so we made sure to hang our food high. Then Moses led his flock out of our basin and back out of the wilderness.

An addendum: When I returned to civilization, I made inquiries to the U.S. Forest Service, to a state DNR biologist, and to a prominent local outdoor writer about the killing of the Mountain Goats. None of them had heard of it. The writer said that he had been hearing stories of massive goat kills in the Goat Rocks Wilderness since he was a teenager, and that once he had even gone up in a helicopter to try and confirm a story. None of these incidents had ever been confirmed, so he thinks they are all merely myths spread by word-of-mouth. While many people are fooled by urban myths on the internet, we were apparently duped by a wilderness myth told by Moses. Anyway, I’m glad it wasn’t true … or was it?

2008_wa_10861The Pacific Crest Trail climbs through high subalpine forests

The next morning we rose early to make breakfast and prepare for our hike to the high and barren ridges crossed by the Pacific Crest Trail. Unfortunately, the day dawned gray and cold again, so we would have to hope for better weather as the day wore on. It didn’t happen.


Snowfields and raw rock on a peak hidden by dense clouds

As we walked upward along the PCT, we walked into the clouds and it began snowing. Scraggly fir trees wore a fresh coat of ice, and we wore every layer we had, including mittens. As we approached Elk Pass, I found a high gravel plateau overlooking the valley below. Here Mountain Goats had rested.


Shallow bed created by a Mountain Goat on a high overlook

We saw where they had used their feet to scape rocks out of the way, forming roughly circular beds where they could comfortably rest. There was also plenty of scattered goat scat. I picked up a piece of chert that looked out of place; about 2.5 inches in diameter, its edges had been worked into a tool by ancient hunters. It may have been used to scrape Mountain Goat hides in this very location several thousand years ago.

2008_wa_09311Chert tool left on a high overlook, perhaps for several thousand years

The sense of timelessness of wilderness came upon me in a rush. Looking around, I also found numerous obsidian flakes that had been made by native Americans long ago. In researching this location later, I found out that early Indians had an obsidian mine site at Elk Pass that archaeologists say was used from 6,500 to 500 years B.P. (before present); they came up here both to hunt and to mine the volcanic stone from which they could create arrowheads and other tools. I can just imagine people looking out from this high ridge for thousands of years. But if they were here on a day like this, they would see only gray clouds.


Twisted trees enduring fresh snow blowing through the high country

We climbed higher, eventually reaching Elk Pass. We passed hikers coming from the other side of the Goat Rocks, including one young man who had just emerged from the clouds. He said apprehensively that he had never done anything like this before. He may never again, but at least he will have the memory of a solid accomplishment in his life. While resting at the pass, I decided that Elk Pass should be renamed “Dead Elk Pass,” at least for this hiking season. On a snowbank just below the pass lay the carcass of an adult Elk, with the nearby remains of either a very young Elk or an Elk fetus. The bones had been recently picked clean, with Gray Jays still doing their wilderness duty of visiting the bones to get the last remnants of meat as we watched. We don’t know if the Elk may have died in birthing its young, or if it was surprised by a Cougar at the pass. A predator–probably a Cougar but perhaps a Coyote–had left scats right atop the rib cage bones of the younger Elk. I’m not an expert, but the constrictions in the scat would indicate Cougar, which may be more than you wanted to know.

2008_wa_10162Adult Elk skeleton at Elk Pass (above) with skeleton of fawn or fetus about 30′ away (below)


I spent perhaps an hour at Elk Pass photographing, while some of our group hiked higher into the clouds. They got very cold and soon returned. We decided that the threat of hypothermia from blowing snow on the exposed ridge was too great, and we began our long descent back to camp, regretting that the views weren’t better.

Warming ourselves around a campfire that night, we talked about a strategy for the next day. We decided that if it was once again cold and gray, we would hike out a day early. But if the first person to get up the next morning saw clear skies, at least some of us would again attempt the same hike as we did today. Awakening at 4:00 a.m. to answer nature’s call outside, I saw only a heavy cloud cover. But when I was the first one up two hours later, I was greeted by a sea of blue sky. I woke everyone and suggested we try again. So we ate a quick breakfast and motivated our tired bodies to again begin the long trudge up to Elk Pass. But this day was different, exhilaration was in the air.

As we hiked higher, we encountered several Hoary Marmots who didn’t mind posing for pictures. The views from the ridge were wonderful and became better the 2008_wa_09811higher we climbed, though there were some clouds forming. We went still higher beyond Elk Pass, passing a Mountain Goat chilling out on a snowfield and a couple of Gray-crowned Rosy Finches foraging in the talus–true residents of the high country. We could see for miles on the exposed ridge and felt the exhilaration that always comes in high places. Maybe it’s the thin air!  

This ridge is steep and narrow; there are old, wind-blasted U.S. Forest Service signs dating from way back in the last century that warn travelers that it was only safe to take 30 stock at a time over the next stretch of trail. We met PCT thru-hikers who proclaimed that this was the most magnificent stretch of the long trail since the best of California’s High Sierra mountains. And still higher we climbed, to the highest point along the trail. Then the time caught up with us and we realized that it was time to descend quickly to camp. We arrived back at deep twilight, satisfied with a day well-spent in the mountains. We slept well on our last night, happy after the day’s wonderful experiences.

2008_wa_12011The Pacific Crest Trail winds through subalpine meadows north of Elk Pass

2008_wa_11371Lupine and other wildflowers border an alpine stream


Mt. Ives viewed from the Pacific Crest Trail in the Goat Rocks

2008_wa_10251The PCT follows a steep ridge near Elk Pass

2008_wa_10651Remnant snowfield with watermelon snow

The highlight on our last morning was when Betty put on her bright magenta camp slippers–a nice complement to the violet-blue lupines around camp. Then we packed up and began the long trek down out of the Goat Rocks, another memorable trip to add to the stories of our lives.

2008_wa_09141Betty’s “Fairy Slippers” for wearing around camp

Trail Statistics:  7.5 miles and 2,000′ elevation gain from North Fork Tieton River Trailhead to our camp in McCall Basin (4.9 miles to PCT, 1.6 miles along PCT, 1 mile along side trail into McCall Basin, where there are plenty of horse and backpacker campsites).  Our camp in the upper McCall Basin was at 5,320′ elevation.  The round-trip hikes to Elk Pass were about 8.5 miles and a 1,500 foot elevation gain.  The highest point we reached above Elk Pass was about 400′ higher and half-a-mile farther.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

Sept 2, 2008: Pickles, Seven, Money, and More

Sweat was streaming down my face.  My 51 lb. backpack felt as if it was loaded with rocks. My breath came in short pants as I and my four companions trudged up a short section of the Pacific Crest Trail toward the Goat Rocks, an extinct volcano in Washington State.  Then we encountered a breath of fresh air in the form of “Pickles,” the trail name for a glowing young woman who this year had already hiked over 2,000 miles on the PCT–all the way from the Mexican border. 

First, some background about the Pacific Crest Trail, then I’ll return to Pickles and other intrepid hikers we met along the trail.  People who intend to hike the whole trail are known as “thru-hikers;”  in a typical year some 300 start the hike, with about 60% finishing.  The PCT starts at the Mexican border,  leading through the hot Mojave Desert, over the High Sierra and the John Muir Trail and Yosemite National Park, past Mt. Shasta, into the forests of Oregon, through Crater Lake National Park, leading over the flanks of Mt. Hood, descending into the Columbia River Gorge, then into Washington and past the Mt. Adams volcano, up and over the Goat Rocks, through Mt. Rainier National Park, winding over the central Cascades and into North Cascades National Park, and finally, Canada!  2,650 miles of hiking through some of the most beautiful landscapes in America!  Most thru-hikers take five to six months to complete the hike.  

Thru-hikers enjoy the passing scenery, certainly, but I think the main draw of the long hike is the physical and mental challenge of hiking the whole trail.  It is incredibly hard work, involving desert heat, high elevations with thin air, hard rains, cold nights, ticks, mosquitoes, and inevitable autumn snows.  Even the logistics of supplying food is daunting, with pickup points scheduled scores or hundreds of miles apart.  Mostly it’s the young and strong who make it. 

Here are a few success stories of thru-hikers we met on a six mile section of the PCT where it passes through the Goat Rocks Wilderness.  The Goat Rocks, in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, are the remains of a volcano that has been dormant for several million years.  Now populated by Mountain Goats, Marmots, Bears, and Elk, the Goat Rocks has alpine landscapes rivaling the High Sierra.



Thru-hikers each take a distinctive trail name rather than using their real name; I love the name Pickles, but I forgot to ask her why she adopted that moniker.  Pickles is a tall and lean and pretty woman who enthusiastically talked to us about her journey.  Her pack had a base weight of 15 pounds (not including food and water), which is really low.  She said it took about $2,000 in outfitting to get the best lightweight equipment she could, including a good Gregory backpack and two trekking poles.  She wore a short, knit skirt and a pair of knee braces and trail running shoes rather than boots.  On her third pair of shoes, she liked the Montrail and Merrill brands; with her light pack she didn’t need to wear heavy hiking boots (like the ones I use).  She slept under a tarp rather than a tent to save weight.  Averaging 25 miles per day, Pickles hikes with a loose and constantly changing group of people who travel at about the same rate.  I commented that she must be in the best shape of her life; she responded that she didn’t feel that way–that she was starting to feel a bit broken down and her feet were bothering her.  But she looked great, and enchanted our group with her enthusiasm.



Seven was born on 7-7-77, hence his name.  If you do the math, you will realize that Seven turned 31 years old somewhere along the trail in California.  Bearded and thin and handsome, he looked the epitome of health.  I asked Seven what he ate on a typical day: said that he didn’t carry a stove, so all his food was cold.  Breakfast was 600 calories of granola,  During the day he ate meal bars and power bars, which have a good balance of carbs and protein and fat, so these kept him going.  He also found that packets of instant oatmeal, mixed with cold water, was a really effective way of getting carbohydrates that lasted all day.  Seven was averaging 30 miles per day, and he felt he was getting stronger all the time.  He said that whenever he had a physical problem, after a good night’s sleep he could completely recover [blogger’s note: it must be nice to be young and strong!].  

While talking with Seven, Ridgewalker and Accent came along.  It turned out that they knew a PCT-hiking friend of one of our group, whose trail name is Guardian Angel.  58 years old, Guardian Angel had hiked for a month, then was sidelined for eight weeks with a stress fracture in her right foot.  Back on the trail, she traveled on a while, then wrenched her back.  The PCT is an extreme physical challenge, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t get very far.  Guardian Angel is one of the three Pearl Girls, who wear pearl necklaces while hiking the trail.


Chinaman and Rambi

Hiking together, this pair of young teachers was doing a big section of the PCT this year; their teaching schedules limited the amount of time they could spend on the trail.  Chinaman was named for the conical hat he wore during the Mojave section of his 2004 thru-hike.  Rambi took her name in New Zealand: Chinaman named her Rambo for her aggressive hiking, but she softened it by combining Rambo with Bambi–hence Rambi!  They had both been sidelined with two illnesses this summer.  They picked up Giardia from untreated water in a wilderness area in southern Oregon and ended up sharing the awful experience of horrendous diarrhea.  Then they picked up the Norwalk Virus in northern Oregon and spent several days of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and body aches.  Which is a terrible thing when you’re stuck in a tent in the wilderness.  They had also been through a raging thunderstorm in central Oregon and the smokes of forest fires near the trail in northern California.  Despite the challenges, they looked happy together and were averaging 20-25 miles per day.

Chinaman also posted his daily trail log to the internet using an electronic gadget called a Mail Writer, which he explained was a kind of precursor to the Blackberry.  They carried a stove and tent, so their base weight was higher than some of the others.  

Super and Visor

At the top of the spectacular Goat Rocks, we encountered Super and Visor.  Young and strong, this married couple had great equipment and appeared to be glowing with health.  Visor wore a visor, of course; I’m not sure where Super got his name, but he worked for the Clif Bar company and was sponsored by them during their hike.  They were from Seattle, so they were getting close to home.



Full-bearded and hiking fast, Money stopped only long enough to tell us that the weather was getting cold.  Which we realized, since it was snowing and clouds were blanketing the mountains.  He posed briefly for me to take a quick snapshot.  I should have taken two, since his eyes were closed.  

All the Others

We met 15-20 thru-hikers on our Labor Day weekend hike.  As far as I’m concerned, they are all outstanding Americans who were willing to take on a challenge that most of us could not accomplish.  It was a delight to chat with them for a few minutes before they tore off again in pursuit of those 20-30 miles per day.

To read trail journals by the hikers themselves, with entries constantly updated, explore the site:  On the home page, go to Journals, then 2008, then Pacific Crest Trail.  There is a lot of good stuff on this site if you are dreaming of hitting the trail.

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.