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If all goes well, today will be our second to last day on the trail. Second to last oatmeal breakfast with raisins and instant coffee. Second to last morning bathroom break. Second to last time packing my backpack and taking down a wet tent. We are now very close to the US-Canada border and the final, ultimate prize: the northern terminus of the PCT. My shoes and socks are looking pretty rough, but they only need to last 45 more miles.
Washington is not going to let us off easy. The days challenge is a 2500 foot climb through Glacier Pass. It is Saturday and the weather forecast for the weekend includes a high chance of snow and near freezing temperatures. The morning starts off hopefully with mostly clear skies but the clouds we saw yesterday continue to move in over the surrounding mountains, dropping moisture as they gather.
After a few hours, a light drizzle begins to fall. It is delicately backlit by the low-hanging sun and the temperature is comfortable for hiking. As we climb past Glacier Pass and begin ascending the exposed switchbacks on the way to Harts Pass, however, we are blasted by a cold wind that chills to the bone. Zero is on the next switchback downhill from me and I yell aloud to him, "Space Age and Zero are unstoppable!" and "We will be victorious!"
The switchbacks take us up and over a ridge at nearly 7000' above sea level. Upon reaching the top, we decide to reward ourselves by taking a lunch break right on the trail in a spot that is somewhat shielded from the wind. Tiny airborne snowflakes dance around us but there is no accumulation on the ground as we unpack our food and cooking gear. As we eat, however, the snow starts falling for real and big, heavy, wet flakes begin piling up everywhere. There is no tree canopy at this elevation and, therefore, nowhere to take shelter from precipitation. We let the snow accumulate on ourselves and our stuff until we have finished eating. I don't like packing up wet gear but I have no choice. I am getting cold and we must move on to reach our goal for the day.
Moving on toward Harts Pass, I slowly warm up. We encounter several day hikers admiring the fall colors, especially the yellow larch, and hunters looking for deer. We stop to talk several times. People here are aware of the PCT and understand that thru-hikers who have made it this far are drawing very near to their goal. By the time we reach Hart's Pass, both of us are tired and seeking cover from both wind and snow. The best shelter we can find is a park bathroom with a small covered porch. The thermometer at the nearby ranger station shows a temperature of 35F.
As we eat our snacks and discuss this evenings plan, three southbound hikers show up. They are Paul Bunion, Kentucky and Adam and they are backtracking from the monument, which they reached yesterday, instead of entering Canada. We congratulate them on finishing and watch as they easily secure a ride into town from helpful strangers. The lure of comfort is compelling in this weather. Zero accepts the next ride that is offered, leaving me with the rest of my Christmas lights and a shared fuel canister he had been carrying. I accept a hunters kind offer of some fresh coffee in his camping trailer set up next to the bathroom.
The hunter and his son are both very familiar with the area and have met many thru-hikers over the years. In addition to a mug of hot coffee, he offers me bananas, cookies, Gatorade and some replacement batteries for my headlamp. I gave my spare batteries to Zero a few days ago to make sure he could continue to night-hike with me but my own batteries have since run low! Their kindness is encouraging and I resolve to continue hiking north but I change into my thermal underwear first. This is the first time on the trail that I have hiked in all of my layers, since I was afraid of getting everything wet before. The snow, however, does not penetrate through my rain gear in the same way that the rain did so my clothing stays dry.
I hike another 8 miles this evening and notice that the wet larch needles covering the trail glimmer like a thick mantle of gold dust in the light of my headlamp. I can see stars in the night sky, a welcome indication that the bad weather should be intermittent overnight, possibly clearing up entirely by morning. I find a campsite and notice right away that a mouse inhabits the fire ring. As I set up my tent for what will most likely be the last time on the trail, I ensure a direct view of the mouse hole. This little guy is brave, climbing up the bug mesh to the top of my tent so I seize the opportunity to scare him away.