Trail Abandoned

We had just left Timberline Lodge and were enjoying a snack break when Minute Man hiked up and passed us by… he was the last northbound thru-hiker we saw on our journey.

The Washington PCT was ours, alone, with the exception of the occasional southbounder or day hiker. Fall was giving way to winter and we seemed to be hiking through misty and damp forests more often than not. 

Making four trail town stops in Washington, we surprised each inn-keeper with our arrival, each one exclaiming that they thought that they had seen the last of the 2015 northbound hikers. We gathered from them that we were just a few days behind a group of four guys and a dog. Monty was hot on the trail of his canine friend, always inspecting their abandoned camps as we hiked on, we knew we must be close.

Approaching the last trail town, David called and spoke with Mary, the inn keeper of the North Cascades Lodge in Stehekin. She was welcoming and surprised to hear from us, they were wrapping up their tourist season but he was able to book us a cabin. Eager to have a shower and a warm bed for the last time on our adventure, we decided to speed up and push to arrive a night early. We hiked up to the seasonally abandoned, High Bridge Ranger Station, and the start of the 11 mile road toward Stehekin.

Already putting in a 22 mile day at that point, it was about 5:30, and darkness was beginning to set in. A posted sign informed us that the shuttle buses had stopped running for the season and we were without a car in sight, so we pulled out the trusty old headlamps and hiked on another 2.5 miles in hopes of finding a place to hang our hats for the night at the Stehekin Valley Ranch. Run by a local family, it’s an original homestead that makes up half of the population of Stehekin (the town has only 85 residents total).

We arrived at the ranch after dark, there was no indication that they were open for business but we were cold and tired and it was worth a shot. David and Monty stood back as I approached the main house and hesitantly knocked on their door, interrupting their supper.  I asked if we could stay there that night but they were also closed for the season. We were offered to take the keys to one of their vehicles to take into town, but we didn’t feel comfortable doing that so they generously gave us a ride in.

Once we made it to town Mary was so amazing! Although she was already in her pajamas for the night, she took us down to the lodge and gave us the keys to our cabin. Then gifted us a dozen eggs and some thick cut bacon so I could cook breakfast in the morning… much needed genuine hospitality!

Stehekin was breathtakingly beautiful in the fall, nestled within the North Cascades National Park at the northern tip of Lake Chelan, the only access is either by foot or boat. It is isolated from the outside world, no wonder a perfect stranger offered to let us borrow his car, there was nowhere to go with it! I fell in love with Stehekin and day dreamed on how we could find a way into their community. I begged David to stay an extra night, and using the leverage of the early arrival, I got my wish.

The next day it began to rain, the locals kept informing us that would mean snow on the mountains but what were we to do?... turn back now?... that was not an option.

We did the usual, showers, laundry, resupply. Since I had my very own kitchenette for the day, I bought a cake mix from the general store and baked us a cake, baking strawberry jam into it in the shape of a heart which didn’t quite work out as hoped but it was still tasty! We read the trail register at the post office and mailed our souvenirs back home. That evening, we listened to music & played pool, enjoying a six pack in their community center.

Stehekin was one of the most memorable stops on the journey for me but I can’t help but wonder, if I hadn’t of begged for an extra day there, or in Skykomish, or Packwood… would we have made it to Canada? But at the time, we needed the respite, I would never want to take these zero days back.

Mary dropped us back off at the trail head the next morning and we began the last chapter of our epic honeymoon adventure. Setting up camp for the night in the rain, we cooked up one of Poppa Ham’s delicious trail dinners, with only five more days left on our journey it started to feel surreal.

We soaked in the vast landscapes and stormy skies, peaceful solitude was never stronger. We dreamed up the celebration at the monument and mapped out our final days… where we were going to camp and how many miles we would need each day to make it to the border, and then back to Harts pass by the 4th of November.  It was within our reach, a small pinhole of light at the end of a long tunnel.

Cold and wet, we made it to Rainy Pass, the second to last road leading to civilization before Canada. We posted up for a break under a trail sign that has a small shelter for us to dry off under. We hung our tent out to dry and heated up some water to make a couple of trail mocha's (our daily sanity saving treat!).  As we were settling in, a couple of local hunters drove up and started chatting with us about the weather turning, telling us that we would probably be getting snow.

We knew we would be cold and wet the rest of the hike, and the snow was a concern. Looking up on the mountains, we could see that there had been a dusting but the tree tops were all green and we felt that it was still hikeable at that point. Fighting off all urges to ask for a ride into the little town of Winthrop, we bid them good-bye, packed our soggy gear back up and looked forward to getting our body heat up as we hit the trail again.

As we climbed, the rain turned to slush, slipping and sliding, we were thankful for our new shoes with improved traction. David was ecstatic about the possibility of snow as he really does love a challenge!

We reached Cutthroat Mtn. Pass just as the snow began to take a more permanent place in the landscape, covering the mountains around us in winter’s white blanket. The sky was layered in incrementally darker shades of grey, the crisp mountain air felt good in our lungs. The incoming storm was a visual masterpiece, painted only for us… we were on top of the world, enjoying every glorious moment and determined to hike on.

With the day coming to a close, we were lucky enough to find camp under tree cover to relieve some of the burden of the snow off our tent as the storm progressed. It was Halloween night so we shared an extra candy bar and fell asleep listening to the snow falling all around us.

We woke with our tent engulfed in fresh powder, light and fluffy and about two feet deep. Monty could not wait to get out of the tent and hit the freshies, he loves the snow! He frolicked about while David and I dried off and packed up camp to set out for our first day of snow hiking.

It only took a few slowed steps in the snow before the tears started rolling down my face, with heaviness in my heart, I accepted our fate. Post holing with every step, we were losing too much ground too quickly and we both knew we wouldn’t have enough food to make it to Canada. We weren’t going to make it. After all that we had accomplished, we wouldn’t know what it felt like to become PCT thru-hikers. David was blazing the trail in the snow and he looked back at me while I cried, he warmly reassured me that it didn’t matter if we touched the border. He was right, but it felt so wrong. Heartbroken is the only way I can describe this feeling.

There was no turning back to Rainy Pass, so we pressed on to Harts Pass, the last road before Canada. We knew that Mike was going to be testing the road on the 3rd in preparation for picking us up at the end of our journey. Our new goal was not to hike the 70 miles we had left to get to the border and back, rather to hike the 10 miles to get to Harts Pass by the 3rd to catch Mike on the trial run.

We only made it 4.6 miles that day, despite the exertion. We reached what was supposed to be the last water source we would come across until after Harts Pass but it was buried under 3 feet of snow and nowhere to be found. The steep mountainside was no place to set up camp so we hiked a few more minutes and passed the alleged water source to set up camp.

Having a tarp tent in the snow posed an issue. We were going to have to dig out until we hit solid ground. David started shoveling snow aside while I put my gear down and ran 50 feet north along the trail. Stomping and packing it down, I wanted to ensure we could find the trail in the morning as it was for sure going to keep snowing all night.

After I blazed our path for the next day, I joined David in clearing out our tent site and collecting snow to melt for hot tea and dinner that night. Melting and boiling snow takes a lot more fuel than its liquid counterpart so we knew that it was not a viable option and I worried about not having enough water once we made it to Harts Pass. We needed enough for at least one more full day and night.

The next morning we had a new challenge… our shoes and our pant bottoms were frozen solid. We knew that if we started off frozen, we would be setting ourselves up for hypothermic conditions so we had to take the time to defrost. We literally put our frozen shoes and clothes on and stayed under our sleeping bag, after several minutes, we would lift the bag and steam would stream up to the roof of the tent, it was working and we were getting closer to being back on the trail for the day.

David decided to search for the water source. He emptied his pack and took the filter, both our bladders, and all the water bottles to head out toward where the water should be according to our maps. Monty was really upset that he couldn’t go with him and as time passed by, I could see the worry on his face grow, as did mine… David was gone for almost an hour but he returned with a full supply of water which meant all we needed to do was get back on the trail and hike on.

By the time we got packed up, it was after noon. Thankfully we could see the imprint of the trail and set off navigating with our trail App.

We faced a few more challenges throughout the day. It is impossible to see switchbacks and there were two huge sections of them right off the bat. Instead of trying to find them, we decided to side step straight up the mountainside until we met back up with the trail at the top.

We did our best to read the natural signs of the trail, looking for the imprint in the snow and the breaks in the trees, but not knowing if we were exactly on the trail, we developed a method of using our poles to determine if we were on flat ground. If the sunken poles were even, we assumed we were on path, if one was lower than the other, we would side step up until we found flat ground again.

Since joining us in Northern California, Monty had usually led our pack but the snow level was above his head and he had to follow behind both of us while we packed it down for him. I could tell he was becoming impatient, going so slowly I worried about him not being able to keep his body heat up.

David was a champ, blazing trail the entire day, he wouldn’t let me take the burden. He would push through, I would stomp down, and Monty grudgingly followed. Hiking the steep hillsides in the snow, we were cautious to not cause avalanches and remain on trail.

The day started to fade into evening, we had only made it 1.3 miles and we found ourselves at over 7,000’ at the top of a ridge, the snow was starting to come at us sideways… we were going into a whiteout. We had no choice but to set up camp then and there, if we pushed on we couldn’t guarantee our safety in the dark.

We scrambled to find a suitable place to dig for our tent but the snow was so deep there was no way we could get to solid ground. I spotted an area that had a few small alpine trees and convinced David that this was our only option. It was set back and downhill a bit so we packed the snow down and made a wind shield with the wall of snow. We tied off to as many trees as possible and got in the tent as fast as we could.

Within 2 minutes of the tent being up, there was an impressive layer of ice that developed on the inside walls. We put our wet shoes and pants in a plastic bag inside the tent in hopes that they would not be as frozen the next morning. Moving as quickly as we could, we heated up dinner and hot tea, doing our best to get body temperatures back up before bed. Our saving grace that night was the fact that there were three of us creating body heat. We put Monty in the middle, pulled the sleeping bag over our heads and endured the coldest night of our lives.

This was our last night on the trail. We took no pictures, and had no celebration, we were full of uncertainty.

The next morning, we defrosted the same way we had the morning before. It was so cold, in the teens at the most. We didn’t want to get out of the sleeping bag but we knew we had to. We didn’t want to push our assistance button but we knew we had to. We waited until the weather wasn’t a total white out and made our moves to leave the tent.

There was no cell service in Northern Washington, so while in Stehekin, we had made contingency plans with Mike… We would push the “We are okay but can use assistance” button on our personal locator beacon (PLB) when we were ready to be picked up at the pass. We kept this button in the forefront of our mind, wanting Mike to wait for us at Harts Pass if he was able to make it up on his trial run, and at the same time not wanting to push it too early and cause panic on the Parent’s end.

We had 4 miles to make, it was November 3rd, we pushed our assistance button (not the emergency button) on our PLB and all I can remember thinking was Happy Anniversary Mom & Dad.

Traversing mountainsides, post holing in nearly waist deep snow, we spent our last day on the trail like any other self respecting thru-hiker would… throwing snowballs, eating icicles, and taking as many photos as our cold hands could!

Little did we know that a rescue operation had been underway for a few days already, orchestrated by our concerned parents and friends. It was expected that a storm front was rolling in over 100” of snow on Mt. Rainier at the same time we were getting snowed on just north of there.  

The only form of communication we had was our PLB, which if they were receiving the signals, it had been telling them that we weren’t getting in the usual 18 – 20 mile days in and that we had fallen way behind schedule. They had no way of knowing our condition or circumstances, and from a parent’s perspective, I can only assume is most worrisome!

The moment that my dad got word of the storm, he was on a plane, then on the road with Mike a day early to see what they could do to ensure our safety.  It was November 2nd when they drove up to the Forest Service road entrance to Harts Pass only to find a locked gate.

Contacting the USFS they learned that the road had been closed a few days prior due to a massive rock slide that blocked access. They were told that there was nothing they could do and that the Sheriff's would be the only department that could come and get us. Dispatch assured Dad & Mike that Sheriff Ottis Buzzard was the man for the job. 

When we pushed our PLB assistance button that morning, it assured them that we wanted off the trail and the fact that they already had a plan set in motion made it for an easy extraction. Our device sent a signal every 15 min with our updated location so they could see where we were in relation to the campground.

When we got to the road leading to Harts Pass campground, no car had been or would be able to drive up to get us, deep powder as far as the eye could see. We evaluated our options and decided that we would set up at the campground, get cozy and have our celebratory tequila shots my dad sent us. After getting a good night sleep, we would set off to walk down the road until we got to civilization.

Just as we were coming around a corner, we looked across a big bowl and saw a couple of people on snow shoes hiking toward the campground. Excited at the possibility that Mike could also make it up that road, we started hiking faster.

As both parties got closer, David was able to make out a word on one of their hats… Sheriff. The only thing I could think to say was, “Are you here for us?” Sheriff Buzzard answered, “Yes, Mike sent us.” Never being a person who copes well with uncertainty, I felt such a relief when he said that, I started crying, happy to know that we were going to be safe.  They told us there was a helicopter just minutes away, ready to look for us if they hadn’t seen us when they did!

Hiking in the wake of snow shoes was effortless and we were to his truck in a matter of minutes. Not a moment too soon as one of Monty’s paws looked a bit swollen and I was starting to shiver. We grabbed our sleeping bag and some snacks out of our pack and jumped in. Beginning to warm up, we were on our way down the mountain, or so we thought… the truck would not start. Our rescuer remained calm while he checked on the truck and was eventually able to get it to coast down.

When we reached the rock slide, he had us all get out of the truck while he navigated the giant boulder, only having an inch or so margin of error to avoid the rocky cliff. All boulders behind us, we kept coasting down, eventually able to connect with dispatch to tell Mike that we had been extracted in good health.

When we got to the gate, we were happy to see not only Mike, who had done so much for us on our journey, but my Dad was there too! In usual fashion, he would go to the end of the earth for his kids so I wasn’t surprised when I saw him, just very grateful for the hug. We are so fortunate to have people who cared so much about us on our journey all the way down to the final moments. When I was a little girl, my dad drove all the way up to Mt Hood to get me ski boots that fit so I could keep skiing that day… I know we would have had the support to keep going, it just wasn’t in the cards with the road closure.

If it weren’t for the rock slide, I can say we would have had it in our hearts to spend a few days in town to warm up, re-group, resupply, rent some snow shoes, then, complete what we set out to achieve.