If you missed part 1, you can check it out here!
Now the hard work began. The 1.4 miles between Lakes of the Clouds and the summit were the roughest miles I’ve hiked yet. The trail was basically built before switchbacks, so it’s straight up, stepping from rock to rock to rock to rock to… you get the picture.
On top of that, add 30-50 mph winds – the next day, they were expected to get to 70 mph. I found the sound to be the worst part – I had my buff over my ears, but my windbreaker was whipping in the gusts and flapping about my head (tip #4). The roaring made it hard to concentrate on steps and generally wore me out much faster than I expected – Kate’s work in a noisy brewery prepared her a bit more, but we were both windblown when we got to the top. Still, it was a gorgeous view along the way.
As we hiked, we could occasionally see the weather towers at the summit peek into view. When we got closer, the clouds moved in again, but at least we knew we were going the right way. And the minute we stepped onto flat ground, mom and dad were standing there to meet us! They took the Cog railroad to the top and had been waiting for us to arrive (tip / lesson #5…).
We hustled inside, grabbed a table, and ate our pre-packed PB&J while sharing our adventures. They served food at the summit, but it looked too greasy to be good for hikers. We also changed into fresh shirts, visited the gift shop, and wrote out some postcards. Overall, the summit was exciting but also incredibly frustrating. A friend had warned me that I would basically want to punch everyone there and it was true – we had been hiking for 5+ hours and were waiting in line for the bathroom with people wearing flip-flops and taking their dear, sweet time before driving down. People in the gift shop, wearing only fresh cotton sweatshirts, crowded us and bumped into our packs and poles. We had worked so hard to get there – to fight for space on a bench with a kid in a tshirt eating an ice cream cone or to wait in line with dozens of people to take a photo with the summit sign was not the reward I was looking for.
And thus we scurried away, down the Jewell trail. By then the skies had cleared and we had incredible views on the way down, partly because there were no trees for hours. This is not a trail you can take in bad weather – it’s totally unprotected. But I had rechecked the forecast with the weather specialists at the top and confirmed it was fine for our next step. And step we did – rock to rock, putting our feet on those whose lack of lichen showed that people had tread there before. It was hard going and hard passing, but we got to know some of our companions – specifically a family of four whose two kids (7 & 9) who we hiked near for hours and chatted with a bit. When we did stop, we had to remind ourselves to drink, despite the extreme lack of anywhere to pee (even a two-foot tall bush can be called “good enough” after a certain amount of time…).
The cairns marked less of the actual trail and more “go this general direction” and we obliged, disbelieving that we could possibly be going so up and down on our way to the bottom of the mountain. We watched the Cog creep by as we went – even climbing over the rickety tracks at one early point – before finally reaching tree cover about 90 minutes from the end.
The trees were a welcome reprieve from the wind and stones, and made the last bit seem faster. However, the mossy rocks also caused me to slip and fall once – leaving some nice bruises in the days that followed. Thank goodness for giant backpacks keeping me from fully falling backwards!
At 7:30, with about an hour of daylight left, we emerged from the woods to a final brook crossing… and there were mom and dad, again! We had made it! We were hiking for 10.5 hours and on the trail for a little more than 12, and still had energy to go out to dinner that night. Victory indeed!
Stay tuned for the final installment in this story, including the story of the Cog and my tips for future hikers, next time!