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Stepping Out

"The number of cars at Rainy Pass caught me by surprise. Not only was it raining, with more clouds pushing up the mountains, but this also was a weekday. Still, there were seven cars at the trailhead. Such is the volume of foot traffic on the Pacific Crest Trail. And what complaint could I make - we were there, too. We consisted of my older brother, Sherman, along with his son, James; my younger brother, Pete, with his son, Jake; my oldest son, Danny, and me. Our party had planned to hike to the south summit of Three Fingers, but the weather, even cruddier on the western face of the Cascades, had forced us eastward. Rainy Pass is still wet - hence the name - but this is where west becomes east in this part of the mountains, where cloud-weary Northwestern Washingtonians drive for a glimpse of blue sky in wet months such as April, May, and October, or this September day. It's cold out, Jake observed, stepping out of the car. The snowline was only 800 feet above us, and he had just emerged from the warmth of slumber. Still, Sherman and I wore shorts. We wouldn't be hiking too long before we'd start feeling overdressed and want to shed any extra items. It also wasn't too long before we met our first hiker coming the other way. Beware of the snow, he cried, and hurried past. I turned to Pete. That sounded rather ominous, I said. It doesn't look too bad. You never know, Pete said. Could be worse than it looks. Sherman and the others pulled ahead of Pete and me. Pete lagged because he was experiencing a sugar low, I, because I had eaten too many doughnuts. A pair of descending hikers met us next. Are you with those other guys? asked one. Yeah, I replied. Well, like we told them, the snow's really coming down, he said. Okay. Four more hikers came down in a group. You're heading straight into a storm, one of them said. Yeah, I heard, I replied. It's really windy up there, another exclaimed, with drifts of eight to ten inches! Pete and I nodded as they went past. Once they were out of earshot, I turned again to Pete. What are eight to ten inches, anyway? I asked. Wimps! If there was eight to ten when they were there, Pete observed, there may be more by the time we arrive. People often overestimate the depth of snow. For the past ten years, I've worked for Washington State's Department of Transportation, and had the opportunity, as it were, to drive a snowplow in the winter. I've often been amazed to hear the reports following a snowstorm. Many times, observer's estimates approach double the actual snowfall, and grow with each telling. Those who drive the plows are not immune. I call the phenomenon big snow. We found the others waiting for us at Porcupine Camp. We set up our tents there, about 1000 feet below Cutthroat Pass, in one inch of snow. I had hoped to spend the night at another camp, at an elevation slightly higher than the pass, but we had decided to be prudent. After lunch, we started up the trail to visit the broad saddle. Again, Pete and I trailed behind. As we neared our destination, we could feel the wind picking up. Certainly the snow was deeper here - about two inches, maybe three where it had drifted. Big snow, I said. Could be worse than it looks, Pete said. Yeah, you never know, I replied. "

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