Thursday, August 22, 2013

Part 175 - The Knife Edge

There was very little room on the trail to set my pack down without it tipping over, but I managed.
The terrifying part in my descent down the scree slope was stepping on the loose rock that continually shifted under my weight and wanted to slide down the mountain.

With much effort, I retrieved the trekking pole but I found that coming down the slope was the easy part; trying to hike back up was an effort in futility.  It was one step forward and three backwards.  There was nothing solid to step on; every rock, most the size of a football, was loose and had only one thought on its mind – to make it to the bottom of the twelve-hundred-foot slope, and take me with it.  After twenty minutes of intense struggle, I was back on the trail.

Once we were past the loose rock of the stock trail, it reconnected with the PCT that had wound its way down the backside of Old Snowy.  Just beyond the connection of the two trails was the Packwood Glacier, one of five glaciers that surrounded Old Snowy Mountain and the Goat Rocks.  The slope across the glacier was gentle, and it required no more effort to cross it other than placing one’s feet in the tracks of those who have gone before. 

Now the combined trails began their passage across the Knife Edge.  From our vantage point, we could see that the Knife Edge Trail was over a mile long with no place to camp, and as it was getting darker by the minute, we have no choice but to push on.  Far, far below us, we could see tiny white dots slowly moving against the background of green – mountain goats, about eight of them.

The Knife Edge is a trail along the top of a ridge that drops off into foggy nothingness two thousand feet on either side of the trail; not a place to be walking in the dark, which we were soon about to do.  We kept our eyes peeled for something, anything that might resemble a flat spot and out of the wind that was blowing incessantly across the ridgetop.  Up ahead, Brownie, who was in the lead, spotted a group of bushes beside the trail that he thought might offer protection from the wind.  Upon inspection, it appeared to be a three-foot-square slope where a mountain goat might have bedded down for the night. 

We stopped there and looked around; down the slope, a hundred yards away, was a relatively level piece of ground that could accommodate one tent. We decided this was the best we were going to find for the evening, and Brownie asked me to pick the spot I’d like for the night.  I wasn’t keen on walking down the slope, only to have to hike back up in the morning, so I opted for the mountain goat bed.

After placing my pack on the ground, I grabbed a flat rock and start to enlarge the goat bed to accommodate my six-foot frame.  The goat had only to curl up in a tight three-by-three ball, and it was comfortable for the night, but that would not due for me.  After a half hour of digging and scraping, molding and shaping, I had a semblance of a flat spot, although it still had a significant downward slope to it and it wasn’t large enough to accommodate my tent.

After extracting what I needed from the backpack, I placed it on the downhill side of the slope at the foot of my bed, so that my feet could rest on it. Even though I couldn’t put my tent up, I was not taking any chances with the rain.  I covered my backpack with the waterproof pack cover Swiss Army procured for me in Ashland, and then laid my tent over me like a tarp, tucking it in all around me to keep the wind from blowing it off.

During the night, I awoke several times to see the sky ablaze with shimmering stars and faint whispers of clouds wafting through the air, and on another occasion, to see the sky black with billowing clouds filled with moisture.  In the end, the billowing clouds filled with moisture won the coin toss, and around three in the morning, the heavens opened up.  But I was prepared, and slept quite comfortably until six the next morning.

By 7:00 a.m., I was on the trail; I looked down the slope to where Brownie had pitched his tent and saw no movement, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until he was stirring.

The Knife Edge was a most appropriate name for this section of the trail.  I found it to be an engineering masterpiece the way the trail has been constructed along the top of the ridge and then across the Egg Butte slope of the descending mountain.

As I inched along the trail, I would stop frequently to take in the incredible scenery that was unfolding before me.  To my left, far across a deep valley, was the alpine setting of Upper Lake Creek Canyon into which a spur trail - the Coyote Trail, descended.

Far below in this same canyon, I watched as the mist began to creep up the canyon, enveloping everything in its path in white fog; it came to where I am standing on the trail, swirled around my feet, and then spilled over the Knife Edge Trail, flowing like liquid mercury down the other side of the mountain into McCall Basin . And then, just as quickly as it appeared, it dissipated.

The Upper Lake Creek Canyon before me was still filled with white clouds, but the dark, volcanic mountaintops above the clouds were bathed in brilliant sunlight.  I paused to snap several pictures with my Canon Sure Shot camera, and the photos I obtained at this moment were, for me, the most stunning and photogenic pictures of the five-month journey on the trail. Once home, I had the best of one of these Goat Rocks pictures framed and it now hangs on the wall in my office.

After passing Elk Pass at the far end of the Knife Ridge, the PCT began a descent that would continue all the way to White Pass, a small ski resort at Highway 12.  At Tieton Pass, I spotted two more mountain goats grazing on the hillside, which gave me a total of eight goat sightings.  For clarification, mountain goats are white and usually exist in an alpine environment, whereas mountain sheep are brown and are generally found in desert settings.  Sheep are quite common along the Colorado River downstream from Moab, Utah.

The descent from the Goat Rocks Knife Edge Trail to Highway 12 and White Pass was an all-day affair – about twenty miles of downhill walking.  The only hikers I saw on the trail during this time was a couple hiking with two donkeys.  Their trail names were Hulk (male) and Pook (female), and they called Colorado Springs, Colorado, their home.  I stopped to take pictures of these unique animals and visit for a few moments with their handlers.  I asked them how it was to travel with donkeys, and they both said it was fine until the donkeys got tired and hungry, and then they start to act like asses.

I reached the White Pass ski area and the Kracker Barrel convenience store at 5:30 p.m., just a half hour before the store closed, but it was enough time to secure my resupply box and buy an armload of junk food.  Brownie, who had passed me earlier in the day, was sitting on a bench outside the store.  Both of us have been on the trail for eight days and we elected to grab a room at the Village Inn next door to the Kracker Barrel, for a much-needed rest.

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