El Fin

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(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.

IMG_2386(Gus’ swollen feet)

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.

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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. IMG_2223

(feeling defeated in the snow at Harts Pass)

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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.IMG_2366el fin

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. elfin4

(Our awesome Canadian saviors)

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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.

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( v on the trail to the monument v)


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(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,

Elena

“…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

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(August and Tigger)

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Section K (Day 137/ Mile 2600) – Gus

Imagine that four siblings are playing a game of Uno. The kids’ names are Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. They are sitting in a circle in the order I have written. All is well and Summer has just taken her turn when suddenly, out of nowhere, their mother, Nature, comes in to the room and throws down a ‘skip’ card. Autumn’s turn is skipped and Winter is up next. Winter then excitedly plays his ‘let it snow’ card and everyone is unprepared and cold.

This anecdote explains how the weather has treated us during this past week.

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Elena and I packed extra warm cold weather clothing and more rain gear while we were at home in preparation for the Northwest fall. We envisioned the last tenth of our trip to be a pleasant walk through familiar woods. Our dad dropped us off at Snoqualmie Pass in the dark early morning rain. The trail climbed to a catwalk. The rocky hillside rose straight up to our left and fell dramatically to our right creating an eerie atmosphere in the stormy fog.

The foggy catwalk

The foggy catwalk

As the day progressed so did our knowledge of the fact that none of our rain gear was waterproof. Quite to the contrary our rain gear was water absorbent. Wringing water out of our only barrier against the rain was miserable. At one point we reached a sign that read “Lemah Bridge Out.” Unfortunately we did not process what those three words in our minds. A couple of miles later we came to a river. Support beams for a bridge stood on both sides of the river., but the part of the bridge that spans the river was completely missing. That was when we processed the phrase “Lemah Bridge Out.” We were forced to ford the river which ended up teaching me another lesson: waterproof boots are only waterproof up to a certain extent. Now I had water in my waterproof boots that was unable to drain because of the fact that they were waterproof. The two gear changes I made in Tacoma were picking up new rain gear and buying waterproof boots; all my clothes were now soggy and there was a puddle in my boots. Staying dry just is not my strong suit I guess. We set up our tents hoping for blue skies the next day. When I peeked out of my tent the following morning I was greeted by blue skies and white earth. Winter had arrived and entire season early. Snow days are awesome as a child because school is cancelled; hiking is never cancelled. It took awhile to unfreeze the zippers on Elena’s tent.

Frozen fall

Frozen fall

Eventually we packed up and resumed walking. We cruised through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness into the dark. We became tired and didn’t want to walk any further to a campsite so we set up camp right where we were on the trail.

Trail camping

Trail camping

Inside my jungle home

Inside my jungle home

We cleared off of the trail before any other hikers came through and discovered our tent blockade. Soon enough ski lifts came into view and we were descending down to Stevens Pass. Our Aunt Beth hiked up and enthusiastically met us. She kindly took us to a peaceful little cabin on the Skykomish River and treated us to good food, relaxation, and advice. Elena and I lamented over the difficulty of the past few days, but little did we know that it was paradise compared to what awaited us. The forecasts that I had been reading called for 5-10 inches of precipitation over the weekend, a freezing level around 6,900 feet, and advised people not to plan any hikes.

The advice

The advice

The advice

The advice

We hit the trail around midday with high replenished spirits and bodies. Thank you so much to Auntie Beth for helping us recover as much as possible in one evening, it was very much appreciated.

Elena and Aunt Beth

Elena and Aunt Beth

The PCT is split into sections to make planning easier. Sections tend to be separated by major highway crossings as they are the main access points to the trail. Section lengths and difficulty range greatly. From where we entered at Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass is section K. It is 123 miles with over 30,000 of climbing and another 30,000 feet of descending. We heard from many former thru-hikers that section K is arguably the toughest due to strenuous climbs, river crossings, and fallen trees. Another hiker said that “Section K is hell” because there are no emergency escape routes; it is remote wilderness. The weather did not attack us that first day back on the trail. It just threatened us.

Stormset

Stormset

Sunsplosion

Sunsplosion

We hurried out of camp in the morning to beat any rain that might fall. The last thing we wanted to deal with was wet tents. Slowly, the mist turned into rain which began to turn into slush and then into snow. By ten in the morning the snow began to stick on the trail. The snow became worrisome when the trail was completely covered and there were a couple of inches piling up all around us. As the day warmed up the snow turned back into rain and our fears were assuaged for the time being. Elena still decided to take off her chacos, which she had been wearing due to blisters, and switch into running shoes.

Trail fashionista

Trail fashionista

Later in the afternoon we spied a PCT hiker hiking south towards us. It looked as if he had just been crying as he told us he had been on the trail for six months, but now was forced to end his trip since the passes were too snowy. Five minutes later we encountered another PCT hiker who had come to the same decision. This man worriedly cautioned us about the danger we were heading towards. We decided that we would check out the conditions and make a decision for ourselves once we reached Red Pass. We passed two more hikers who were going home and two more shortly after. All in all, we ran into six hikers who were deciding to turn around; that should have been a strong enough message for us. Around sunset we reached Red Pass where the ground was hidden by snow. The trail was nicely boot packed and easy to follow. We made the choice to trudge on. Considering the wet weather that was supposed to fly in anytime we decided that we ought to hike all night to knock out as many miles as possible. Under starry skies we hiked for many hours up towards Firecreek Pass. Our headlamps illuminated the trail and I began to think that the forecast may have been way off. That was not to be. At around three in the morning the snow started to float down to the earth. Thirty minutes later the snow was coming down by the bucketful. The buckets of snow piled up and the trail began to play hide-and-seek with us. Fear began to eat at me when we could not even discern the trail; an uncontrollable panic that we might get stuck in the great big wild. Elena bravely led the way and got us to Firecreek Pass where we started to descend out of the snow.

Firecreek Pass 4 A.M.

Firecreek Pass 4 A.M.

By the time we got below the freezing level we had been awake hiking for twenty-four hours. A nap was necessary so we set up our tents in the pouring rain and attempted to sleep. An hour later I woke up violently shivering. I was wearing all of my warm layers and inside of my zero-degree down bag, but I could not manage to warm up. Elena was having a similar issue so we quickly packed up. Walking was the only way we could stay warm. This realization was frightening as we were over fifty miles from the nearest road no matter which way we hiked. I would say about now is when my fear completely overtook me. Luckily we had brought some hefty trash bags along so I was able to craft a makeshift rain jacket to cover my innermost layer. The trail dropped a couple of thousand feet and then regained it all with endless switchbacks. Rain continued to piss out of the sky and flood the earth. Mini rivers and rapids were streaming down the trail. It is a shame that no squirrels or marmots raft because they would have had some sweet class IV rapids.

The Trail River

The Trail River

As we were making our way around many overflowing creeks, and descending from the third pass that section, we were passed by two other fellow thru-hikers (who are both safe and sound, thankfully). Seeing them simply made us feel less isolated and scared. Our breaks could not last any longer than five minutes or so. After the five minute mark one of us would begin to shiver and warming up takes some time. Down, down, down we went to the bottom of the Suiattle River Valley. The escape plan we had formulated was to hike all night again and make it to High Bridge in time for the first shuttle into Stehekin. Once we reached civilization everything would be all right. Having this plan made us feel confident that we would be dry, warm, and out of the woods soon. The Glacier Peak Wilderness had other things in mind though. After hitting the valley floor we hiked along the river towards the bridge that crossed the Suiattle river. Downed logs were everywhere and plants overgrew the trail in many places. Rain fell at a monsoon rate and the entire valley floor was either a puddle or a stream going downhill. Finally we reached a brownish river that was gushing more water than the riverbed could contain. Rivers and creeks were becoming monsters in all of the rain and snowmelt. Naively, we thought that this roaring snake of water was the Suiattle. The only thing missing was the bridge. Fording the river was not an option and we actually had no options except to wait for the water levels to decrease. The idea of setting up a wet camp and being sedentary for a night was scary, but there was not much else we could do. After finding a dry area to camp and setting up our tents nearly everything we owned was soaked. Our down jackets and sleeping bags were dangerously damp. Once again I was periodically woken up by fits of shivering. Finally the sun rose and we wasted no time in packing up our gear and getting on the move. Walking back to the river was nerve-wrecking as we had no idea whether the water had gone down or not. All we knew was that we had to cross it some way or another. Thankfully it had gone through a complete transformation. Brown and scary the night before, the river had turned into a calm, clear creek. Easily we crossed it and eventually reached the Suiattle River bridge. It was nice and warm to be on the move once again. For the next four hours we climbed and climbed up to Suiattle Pass. Around a mile from the pass we encountered snow once again.

Our baby brother

Our baby brother

Elena claims that the overflowing creek was a blessing in disguise. If we had climbed up to Suiattle Pass the night before then we may have been caught in a major blizzard. As we neared the pass the snow kept falling harder and harder until footprints on the old snow were covered. Quickly we descended and got out of the snow zone. During our next break we did the hokey-pokey for a while to warm up. A little fun and humor can always take the edge off of a seriously scary situation. Our new plan was to hike until we reached Rainy pass, 40 miles away. Night fell and the rain followed suit. For most of the nighttime hours we followed Agnes Creek in a torrential downpour. The underbrush was up to our shoulders. I could have believed that I was in a rain forest if it had not been so chilly. Coffee was necessary every couple of hours to keep our eyes open. Elena began to have short vivid dreams every time her eyes shut. Finally the rain passed and was replaced by fiercely cold wind. We began to hear noises that sounded like boulders being hurled at the ground. I guessed that it was trees falling, but we definitely did not stop to investigate. After walking out of our mind all night long we reached High Bridge and the entrance to North Cascades National Park. The trail hit a dirt road and it took an hour of aimless searching to find the trailhead. Then the sun rose. Seeing the sun rise that morning put a blanket of comfort and calmness on my manic mind. Elena and I cooked beans and rice for breakfast. We gave each other a big hug and just said “We’re alive.” The twenty miles to Rainy Pass from there were painful and long, but they passed, as all things do. Before we knew it, we were both safe and sound in Winthrop at our Oma and Opa’s house. A big thank you to our Oma and Opa for putting up with wet, smelly hikers and their wet, smelly gear. We even had a preemptive 23rd birthday dinner for Elena with Oma’s classic raspberry cloud cream cake and mimosas. Many fellow hikers are still out in the cold and the wet. The PCT community is one big family to us now regardless of how well we know someone. We have shared miles, poptarts, pain, and an unbreakable camaraderie. Keep all these hikers in mind and send them good thoughts as they make their way out of the cold, damp woods as well.

23!

23!

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