When I first started hiking a lot, I used to pore over hiking books and online trail databases for hours at a time, creating detailed lists of the best looking trails. I had (er, still have) a voracious appetite to find and hike all the best trails in the Pacific Northwest. One destination has remained at the top of the list for a long time, tucked away in the Central Cascades of Washington, seemingly out of my reach.
I didn't always see myself as someone who could do a big twenty mile adventure in the mountains, by myself no less. After doing a lot of backpacking this summer and getting comfortable with my gear, I spontaneously decided it was time to conquer that tough hike that's been lingering at the top of my list for so long: Jade Lake, an approximately twenty mile round-trip trek with 4,324 feet of elevation gain in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Central Washington.
With autumn on the way and the summer backpacking season coming to an end, the sense of immediacy to accomplish this journey was strong. "Rain or shine," I told myself, "I am doing this hike." I know I'm experienced and equipped with the things it takes to do it safely, even if it's nasty outside, so there are no excuses not to finally do this. Take no prisoners.
Naturally the forecast said it was going to rain relentlessly on the first day (somehow it felt a bit like I had invited the rain when I said "rain or shine"), but then it was forecasted to turn to sunshine the following day. As soon as I pulled up to the trailhead and walked away from the car, the rain really began to pour.
Image: a rainbow captured on the way to the trailhead that dark, rainy morning
I began my march up the trail, while choking down one of the grossest granola bars I've ever eaten; my appetite was weak that morning, and I wasn't able to stomach all of the breakfast I had packed. One minute I was charging ahead, excited and hopeful about the day ahead--but as the cold rain began to seep through my layers and I caught a preview of how foggy the mountains ahead would be, anxiety and doubt set in. Just like that, my brain was betraying me with thoughts about how this was a bad idea. I couldn't stop my mind from replaying the words "cold, wet and alone" over and over in my brain as I stomped through puddles.
Two miles in, I took my backpack off and paced back and forth in indecision for about twenty minutes--should I bail on this hike after driving SIX hours to be here? Usually I listen to these sorts of doubtful gut feelings no matter what, but this time I still couldn't bring myself to turn around so fast. I reminded myself that it's still early, having started at 7:30am, and I could always keep hiking for a while, then turn around at anytime if I really didn't want to spend the night out there. If I DID decide to camp out, I knew I had lots of dry layers and a warm sleeping bag to make it through the night. I reminded myself that panicking is not yet warranted.
A few minutes after overcoming my anxiety and lack of motivation, a couple of hikers my age caught up to me, and started making warm conversation about where we were all heading and if we've been there before. They had really high energy levels and seemed unmoved by the rain, which was just the reassurance I needed that I wasn't entirely alone in this crazy adventure, even though we wouldn't be heading to the same lake. I pressed on for the rainy climb up to Deception Pass.
Image: a rainy day selfie (note my pruned thumb--despite the smile, I was struggling to maintain feeling in my cold, soggy fingers in the middle of day one)
About this hike: the long journey to Jade Lake begins with two miles of flat, easy hiking to Hyas Lake, before climbing steeply for another couple of miles to the junction with the Tuck Lake trail, then on to Deception Pass. At a big junction with the PCT on top of the pass, you fork left for the Marmot Lake trail instead of following the PCT. From here, the trail opens up to meadows surrounded by towering granite peaks. Then, it hikes downhill and loses a bunch of elevation before ruthlessly leading you back up more steep switchbacks again to Marmot and Jade Lakes (which also means the return trip involves more hiking uphill).
When I turned onto the Marmot Lake trail and began the descent through the meadows, that was when I knew I was officially committing to an overnighter. Turning around five miles in would no longer be a good option, given the shorter daylight of late September. Instead I began telling myself that I could always camp at Marmot Lake, and it would be okay if I couldn't make it to Jade Lake. My boots and socks were completely soaked from all the standing water on the trail; my rain pants were no longer keeping out the rain; and my fingers were cold and pruned. Either way, I knew this was turning into a survival/self-preservation mission instead of a leisurely backpacking trip, as the threat of hypothermia was real if I didn't take the proper measures to stay warm and dry that night. "What am I getting myself into?" I wondered.
Image: Marmot Lake (a great place to camp for the more reasonable, practical folks who visit the area)
Upon arriving at Marmot Lake, I wasn't very impressed or inspired in terms of taking pictures there. Yes, it's a beautiful alpine lake--but it was only two o'clock, and there was no way I drove six hours and suffered through this entire rainy hike only to give up here, just shy of the great Jade Lake. After a snack/pack break on the shore, I began to put one foot in front of the other yet again.
During the scramble around Marmot Lake, I started leapfrogging with another couple who had spent the night there before beginning their own trek up to Jade Lake. All of us took turns slipping on wet rocks or experiencing confusion about where to go on the way up (it's an off trail, cairn-guided scramble up from Marmot Lake), and we made sure each other was okay and on-track a few times. My encounters with the other hikers who were enduring the bad weather made a world of difference with keeping my anxiety at bay that day.
Finally, after completing the precarious boulder scramble up above Marmot Lake in about an hour's time, I reached the spellbinding waters of Jade Lake. It was an incredible sight; the most vibrantly turquoise water I've ever seen, and it seemed even more fluorescent in contrast to the dark rain clouds hugging the peaks above. All of my prior doubts faded away, and I was so incredibly happy that I had pushed through the hard journey. What a day it was.
There are only a few established clearings to put a tent by Jade Lake, but on this rainy September day there weren't many other campers to compete with. Immediately after setting up my tent and snapping a couple pictures, the rain began to pour again--and it didn't let up until much later in the middle of the night.
I changed into my dry set of clothes (clean socks, SmartWool leggings, a puffy coat, and a warm beanie hat) and made myself at home in the tent, very aware that I might be in trouble if I get my backup layers wet in the rain again. In fact, if not for the spare dry outfit, I'm afraid I would have froze that night because temps dipped below freezing. Other than a single break to go pee and filter more water from the lake, I spent fifteen consecutive hours in my tent just sleeping, munching on snacks, or journaling.
In the morning, my tent had a shell of ice from freezing rain which came down around 1 a.m., and everything was blanketed in frost. The rain clouds from the night before, however, were replaced with warm sunshine on the rise--such a welcome sight, and I had been banking on it.
After waiting in the morning sun there for several hours, drinking instant coffee and exploring the shore, my tent and clothes were dry again. My boots were still very water-logged, but a pair of thick wool socks kept my feet happy for the entire ten-mile return hike by some miracle. I was also allowed to slow down to enjoy many handfuls of wild blueberries and huckleberries on the hike out, no longer suffering from numb fingers or being pelted with cold rain.
Hiking to Jade Lake on a cold, rainy day in September was the very epitome of "Type 2 Fun:" difficult and stressful in the moment, and I had to draw upon all my prior safety knowledge/prep to stay safe, but it was a hell of a lot of fun in hindsight! Call me crazy! I finally crossed a stunning place off the bucket list, and I would do it all again in the same conditions because the destination was so worth it (plus, it sounds like a summer hike here has the trade-off of vicious mosquitoes and residual snow anyhow)... But I confess, it was also the perfect end to this year's backpacking season in the mountains. Now I'm ready for campfires, blankets and all things "spiced!"
Happy Adventures to you, and I hope you're enjoying the autumn!