(life on the trail)
We both got off the trail on Monday in Winthrop pretty shaken up, exhausted and cold. In the last ten miles of section K, Gus had developed shooting pains in both his feet every time he took a step and both of our backs felt compressed because our water-logged backpacks were about ten pounds heavier than usual. I didn’t completely stop shivering until a full twelve hours after I became warm and dry. Luckily our Oma and Opa reside in Winthrop and thus were able to help us recover from our stormy hiking binge.
We took Tuesday completely off. Resting, eating, sleeping and epsom salt baths were the activities that occupied our time. We learned that a few other PCT hikers we knew were holed up in the Mazama/WInthrop area as well and, like us, were planning to hit the trail the next morning.
Wednesday dawned dark and clear. I finished the final touches on packing before checking weather reports (for the gazillionth time) and checking our source of PCT news, the Class of ’13 facebook page. The most recent post was from just that morning. Fellow hiker named Toots Magoots had tried to hike north from Rainy Pass the day before with a group of people. Her blog described waist-deep high snow on the trail and post-holing at a pace of one mile per hour before hitting a wall of snow and deciding to turn back.
We were all so close. Winthrop and Mazama are literally the last possible resupply on the PCT. Hikers hitch into these towns from Rainy Pass, only 60 miles from the Canadian border, 68 miles from the end of the trail. In normal conditions, PCT hikers fly through this last stretch in 2-3 days. But post-holing through snow is a much slower endeavor.
But PCT hikers are a creative bunch. The group that got denied by the trail in said blog had decided that they would do a 20 mile road walk to Ross Lake trailhead (in the North Cascades National Park) and then take a trail at lower elevation up into Canada. Walk from Mexico to Canada anyway possible became the goal, we don’t need the PCT! So that was an option. I was still pretty smitten with the trail, so I called up a friend who was heading out with another group that day to hear their plans. Snowshoes. When the snow gets too deep to walk through, walk on top. I thought it sounded like a fabulous idea and said I’d meet them at the WInthrop Mountain Sports Store when it opened.
After reading Toots’ blog that morning, in conjunction with continual shooting pains through his feet, Gus made the decision to stop hiking. He said that he could deal with extreme foot pain for 68 more miles under normal conditions, but walking in snow with impaired abilities did not sound like a good idea to him. Neither did walking on pavement for 20 miles. So Gus was done, and I was on a new mission to figure out how the heck to get to Canada.
The Winthrop Mountain Sports store was a whirlwind of PCT hikers. My friend, Krusteaz, was headed out with a group of four that were leaving immediately after renting snowshoes and snow gear, and I planned on heading out with them. I met another group of friends that were heading out the following day with snow shoes as well (Puppy, Cherub, Bad Seed and El Jefe). As I was in line waiting for snow shoes, my Oma and Opa’s friend and neighbor who works at the store saw me and said that she could outfit me for free with her own gear if I could wait until she was off work. Seeing as how I was already way over my PCT budget and snow-shoes and gear had no place in that plan in the first place, I jumped at the offer. I would just go out with the group that was leaving the next day.
Upon leaving the store, I ran into a friend that Gus and I had hiked with in the desert, Mac the Wizard, and his friend, Appa. They were stuck in the same predicament as all the rest of us. So close, but not the right gear, or knowledge, go winter camping in October. I told them that I would be around town and had access to my grandparents car, so if they needed anything, a ride to the trailhead, grocery store, etc., to just let me know.
Later that day they decided that they would have a go at the trail from Harts Pass, about 30 miles from the Canadian border, and asked if I’d be willing to drive. I was eager to check out the snow conditions, and one of the hikers that would be going out in the group the following day wanted to try out his snowshoes, so the four of us crammed packs and snowshoes into my grandparents’ Subaru Impreza and drove up to Harts Pass.
Most of the car ride felt like we were driving through a beautiful brisk autumn day in Eastern Washington. Spirits were high and we were all hopeful. This was going to be a piece of cake. Just in the last few miles of the drive the weather started to turn. Rain turned to snow, which started coming down hard. A snowplow came down the road and told us not to go past the parking lot at Harts Pass in the car that we were in.
We reached the top in almost a foot of snow. Although we had GPS and wooden signs pointing us towards the trail, no path was to be seen. As we walked around the area, up the road, down the road, trying to find the trail, the snow banks grew and my drive and inspiration to hike those last 60 miles was diminishing rapidly. In light of the experience that Gus and I had just had in the previous section, I did not want to put myself in another situation in which I felt incompetent powerless to Mother Nature’s wrath of indifference towards hikers. Not being able to find the trail, with snow continually falling from the sky was what led me to make my final decision. Snow with snow-shoes is one thing, but being lost in snow is a different game. There was a weather window for the next few days, but Sunday was supposed to being with a major storm, a Pineapple Express. I wouldn’t want to be lost in that. And even if we found the trail, how fast could we go in snow-shoes? 15 miles a day? 20 miles a day? Definitely not the 30’s we were used to. There was just no margin for error either way.
(feeling defeated in the snow at Harts Pass)
Appa and Mac also decided that they were done that day up on the pass. Besides snow-shoes, the gear that we all had was made for hiking light, not necessarily keeping us warm. We drove back down into Mazama to get a beer and talk to the outdoor outfitters about snow conditions and winter camping. El Jefe was going on. He had come the way from St. Louis and had yet to skip a mile on the PCT (the rest of us had hitched or skipped a few miles or so over the last 4-5 months). As we sat in a melancholy haze trying to figure out what we thought, what to do next, reports started coming in of missing PCT hikers. First off, four hikers that Gus and I had last hiked with around White Pass (Shotput, Pepperflake, Unicroc and ScatTracker), were stuck in the area between Stevens Pass and Rainy Pass, section K. No one had heard from them and snow was building. Secondly, three other PCT hikers were lost somewhere in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.
We drove back to Winthrop and I told the group that I had planned to leave with the next day of my decision. That I personally didn’t feel comfortable going the last 60 miles, but that they were all very welcome to use any of my gear (two-person tent, z-lite, liner…) to help make their winter camping experience more enjoyable. The decision was difficult, and telling them was even harder, but I also knew I made the right choice. My stomach had been in knots for the last four days and making a definitive choice after having seen the conditions for myself helped ease the tension.
But I still needed some kind of closure. For me,the trip couldn’t just end like that. Talking to other PCT hikers at the brewery that night, I discovered that the group that attempted the road walk to Ross Lake had made it 20 miles on the highway before getting to the entrance of the North Cascades National Park. There, they had been turned away by a ranger and told that they would be arrested if they entered the national park. Great timing for a government shut-down.
At this point I had decided that the easiest thing to do, to get that closure I needed, was to drive up to Manning Park and hike that last 8 miles in to the monument. Luckily, Mac and Appa were on board with the idea, as Gus didn’t seem to need that same culminating experience. Gus’ feet too, were still in major swell mode, and even a 16 mile day is tough when your feet are in pain.
So, bright and early Friday morning, Appa, Mac and I set out in my Opa’s ’91 Subaru Legacy, Canada bound. Manning Park was about a six hour drive from Winthrop, and the majority of the trip passed by uneventfully. We picked up a German hitchhiker who had been fruit-picking in Canada, to try and start paying back all the hitching karma that we owed. We made it through the last town before the park, Princeton and started climbing into the mountains. The road continued to slant up and after about five miles of this, the hood started to smoke. We were an hour away. We pulled over and checked the coolant, oil…all good. Well, we figured, old car and a big hill, maybe it’s just overheated. We poured water on it, waited for an hour or so, made lunch… We got back in the ready for the moment of truth and-the car starts, with not much smoke. We shift into gear and…it doesn’t engage, the clutch simply doesn’t engage. The gear shift says we’re in first, but the car is very clearly rolling backwards. So, uphill is not an option. Mac and I stop traffic while Appa maneuvers the car so that it’s facing downhill and we coast, hoping that if the car gets going, the gears will engage. No such luck.
Long story short, we ended up pulling off to the side once the downhill ended and hitching back into town. We got a tow-truck ( called a ‘wrecker’ in Canada) and brought the car back to the shop. They diagnosed the little Subaru with a slipping clutch. In other words, the clutch was out, a $1500 fix with labor and parts, plus a five day wait. Because we were in Canada, communication over phone with my parents and grandparents was difficult, but they blessed the decision to carry on to Manning Park and deal with the car later.
So then it was; our last PCT hitch. We got picked up by and awesome Canadian couple, a musician and spoken word poet who entertained us with a playlist of Canadian bands. And then we were there, glorious Manning Park at last.
(Our awesome Canadian saviors)
We made it to the monument the next day, on October 5th. There were eight other PCT hikers that had the same idea, and as we passed eachother on the trail we were joined in bittersweet jubilation. On one hand, we were all so close, the last 60 miles is an excruciating place for mother nature to kick into her winter gear. But at the same time, we all did it. We had all just walked such an incredibly long distance, and had spent 4-5 months of our lives living in the woods, mountains, and deserts of the west coast. We had all pushed ourselves past boredom, pain, the allure of the comforts of civilization; past fear and insecurities we had, to make it there. To walk to that dang Canadian border and it’s wooden monument and touch that thing. We were joined by an experience that is unique for each different person, yet similar in the ways that we all know how it feels to sleep under the stars night after night after night, to drink solely form mountain-fed streams for days on end, to wake up and walk from dawn ’till dusk, and want to do it again, to hike one day with someone and feel like you’ve known them for years, to feel that immense gratitude when a car finally pulls over after you’ve been waiting for a hitch, to know that your feet hurt terribly, but maybe they’ll feel better tomorrow, to choose to go to the bathroom in the woods over an outhouse, simply because it’s easier, to walk into a bar or restaurant in a town you’ve never been in and have dirty hiker trash friends already inside, to smell bad, to look dirty, to not look in a mirror for days on end, to always be hungry, to always be eating, to always be minorly physically uncomfortable, but never happier to be right where you are, to see countless epic sunrises and sunsets, but never lose that same sense of wonder…it’s the little things that make the trail.
( v on the trail to the monument v)
(a snowy October jaunt in Canada)
And we were done. My dad very graciously drove up to Manning Park to pick us up. It felt good to be done, it IS good to be done, but I am glad I got the final closure of seeing the monument. I needed that.
The two groups that snow-shoed both made it through the last 60 miles. I had lunch up in Seattle with hikers from both groups and it sounded like an adventure. The group that was stuck in section K in the snow ended up back-tracking to Stevens Pass, postholing in waist-deep snow for five days. Another hiker was heli-evacked out of that section that week. Two of the PCT hikers that were stuck around Goat Rocks Wilderness got heli-evacked on Friday, but the other PCT hiker was stuck in the snow by herself for eight days. She finally hiked out/was rescued on Saturday.
If there’s one thing that the many miles of this trail has taught me, it’s having the grace and flexibility to deal with whatever comes at you. We didn’t get a hitch out of town today? We’ll try again tomorrow. Running low on food? We’ll start rationing. Winter came early and snow is obscuring the last section of the trail? Find a way to finish with integrity, a task that is different for everyone.
So we did it, Gus and I in our own ways. We’ve hiked our own hikes over the last four and a half months and have seen and learned many things; things that we may not realize we know for days, weeks or months to come. But as for now, we have a plethora of useless information about ultra-light gear, know the best way to dig a poop-hole, how to deal with blisters on ANY part of our feet, ford a river in the most expedient way possible, how to make a meal with the random assortment of foods from the bottom of a food bag, and, how to walk. We really learned how to walk.
Until next time,
“…There are two ways for a baseball player to get the pitch he wants. The simplest way is not to want any pitch in particular. But the best way, he said-which sounds almost the same, but is really very different-is to want the very pitch you’re gonna get. Including the one you can handle. But also that’s the one that’s gonna strike you out looking. And even the one that’s maybe gonna bounce off your head.”
-David James Duncan, The Brothers K
(August and Tigger)