Rescue on Red Pass

Jake crossing a dangerous snow bank earlier in the trail.

“Haaaaaa!”

We heard a voice — very faintly. It seemed so far away — maybe on the other side of the valley. We couldn’t tell how far. Jake and I stood frozen.

We were at the top of Red Pass in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, smack in the middle of what we were told was “the hardest section of the PCT.” We were less than two weeks into the trail, still nursing constant aches and pains. Each little twinge threatened serious injuries like plantar fasciitis or shin splints, but many of which healed after a good night’s sleep or a diligent stretch in the morning.

That day had been punishing. Dense, bone-chilling fog descended on us as we made our way up seemingly endless switchbacks to a mountain pass. After living in Mexico City, I used to scoff at any peak or pass under 12000 feet. But that day, a 6300-foot pass was killing me.

A brief moment of lightness in the fog

Finally we rounded the last bend and wrenched our wrecked hamstrings up onto Red Pass. I nearly collapsed into a puddle, knowing that wasn’t even the last pass we would need to cross that day. It was barely noon.

We emptied our food bags and began to assemble our lunch of tuna and tortillas. While doing so, we chatted with another hiker who had breezed past us on the uphill. She had hiked the Appalachian Trail the year before and had impressed us with her light pack and carefully chosen gear. After telling us a bit about her story, the hiker moved on. Jake and I both commented that she seemed to be such a strong walker, she would probably be days ahead by the time we made it to the next trailhead at Stevens Pass. We were then quickly distracted by a friendly marmot who ran into the pass, only vaguely afraid of hikers.

The marmot atop Red Pass

Then we heard the shout.

“Jen, be quiet,” Jake whispered. “I think I heard someone.”

We waited, but heard nothing. I was cold on the pass so I packed up my trekking poles and buried my hands in my pockets. We hoisted on our backpacks and started down the pass.

After 20 feet, we heard the voice again. It was the same hiker who we had been chatting with moments before. Then we saw her.

She was perched in the middle of a snow bank, hanging on to her trekking pole.

“I slipped,” she called to us. “I’m stuck.”

Jake and I ran over to her.

Ever since we arrived in Washington, we we heard about the north-facing slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Less sun and more exposure meant those hillsides were more likely to have snow. This year, the snow melt was early in the Cascades— we were able to start our hike a few weeks earlier than we expected. For the most part the snow has melted, but it still remains in sections, especially on those northern slopes. Most of the time, it is quite slushy and there are clear footprints showing the way through. But sometimes the snow is steep and drops off at a sharp angle. For those moments, we carry micro spikes. Micro spikes are like crampons but a little bit lighter and a little bit less grippy.

The snow in Glacier Peak Wilderness has melted significantly but hangs on in sections.

As we approached the hiker in the snow bank, we saw a trail of footprints. They rose a few feet above the track of the PCT, which was still covered in two inches of ice. Those footprints told us exactly what had happened. Just three steps across the snow field, one footprint skidded down at a chilling angle. Ten feet below was the hiker. She was stuck on the side of the trail, unable to move from her spot. Below her were several hundred feet of slick snow. The bank was so steep at that point, she was wedged up against the icy track of the PCT. She had managed to reach her micro spikes, but her position was so precarious she couldn’t put them on. And she was too far into the snow field to crawl out.

Hurriedly Jake pulled on his own spikes and rushed over. Before he could reach her, he had to knock ice off the trail first. He slammed his trekking poles into the mud, slinging chunks of ice as he went. Meanwhile the hiker hung on, worried any movement would sent her skidding down the bank.

After several nerve wracking moments, Jake was able to reach her, grab her backpack and pass it over to me. At that point I had my micro spikes on as well, but the ledge Jake was working on was so narrow and mucky, he told me to stay where I was in the muddy — not snowy — section of the trail.

Jake inched closer to the hiker, hacking through slush and ice. When he finally reached her, she was able to shimmy sideways. He grabbed her arm to hoist her up onto the spot he had just cleared of ice, first, in a sitting position and then to her feet. We asked how she was. “Cold,” she told us, “covered in mud, but otherwise fine.”

We took a few moments to collect our thoughts, but there was little time to rest. We still had to cross the same snow drift she had just slipped on.

Crossing a snow field

All three of us in micro spikes venture up along the trail of footprints. Jake went first, kicking in steps as he went along. The hiker went next. I followed after her. With Jake’s steps, the micro spikes and my trekking poles, I felt very secure on the snow. We reached the other side, and the hiker doubled over in visible relief. I felt tears tugging at the corners of my eyes in my own relief for her and us.

We removed our micro spikes and took stock. Suddenly the dense fog that had blanketed us all day parted. I won’t say there were blue skies, but the lightest hint of blue could be seen above the clouds. And finally we saw the view: lush green mountain slopes ahead. We continued hiking, the three of us in a row, as the marmots cheered us on with their high pitched chirps (marmot-call). Eventually, the hiker passed us and went on ahead to camp. We only saw her once after that. She’s probably a day or so ahead of us by now.

**I left the hiker’s trail name out of this post.**

Leaving Stehekin and getting our thru hiking wings in the fog

It seemed for a minute this Monday morning that we had neither the food nor the energy to do the big miles needed that day to get us close to the highway to town after this past long section.

We stood at the bottom of a long downhill in the fog with our feet soaked from ferns which is pretty common in Washington, wrapped in our filthy runners, our bodies sore and stinking, our garbage bag bulging as the food bags were rapidly shrinking. But happy as Larry, obviously.

I always tell myself when things are down a little bit that the pain and rain are worth it and even then it’s better than the metro in rush hour or the out of hours work messages. But our bodies hurt and we had a long day ahead so even then it’s a bit of a challenge.

We were at the bottom of a long descent from our camp and, despite the descriptions above, were going strongly into a near 20 mile day as we bumped into some other SOBO thru hikers breaking down their camp and were spurred on after sharing jokes and complaints about the weather and our food. A quick change like that and everything looks up. We’d met all of them previously, Amber, Jordan, Black Hole, Poppins and Locahontas who now dub them(our)selves SloBos.

SloBo (noun): Compound of slow-mo and sobo, decided on after a fraught battle between SoboSlomo, SlomoSobo and obviously SoMoSloBo.

Anyway, we might feel a little slow at times but we’re far from it. We’re safely managing bigger and more consistent days now. Every day is in the high teens and we’re slowly creeping towards that magical 20 mile average. This last section marks the time we became actual thru hikers. We can do this.

In the past week we’ve come far in many ways since our last zero day in Stehekin (bakery) 108 miles ago on my birthday.

Stehekin
Hanging out at the bakery

The day after my 36th (ouch) we packed up our mouse semi-chewed resupply (thanks Stehekin PO) and heaved them on, naively mocking their weight, now a little over 30 pounds (about 14 kilos) with food and no water. Ouch. Some people have heavier, no idea how they manage.

Before leaving, we did last minute chores and spruced ourselves up in one of those quarter eating showers you have to presoap before using to get the most bang for your literal buck.

We did that and hit the trail, via the Stehekin bakery of course. Let me say now, I patronised that establishment three times in three days, and nothing, nothing, beats the chicken pocket. Garden protein bomb delight. Must’ve been 1000 calories. Perfect.

Stehekin chicken slice on the bus. Get it.

The weather was absolutely glorious and we enjoyed the Stehekin river for a while and headed up the way. I was cursing the extra Hershey’s bars I didn’t think we needed as I remembered how a heavy carry out of town feels.

Heading out of town. My pack

The sun was hot and everything ached after a day off. Days off (zeros) make you weak in the short term but stronger over the long run I kept thinking that as my feet pounded and back ached as we arrived in camp.

Red Feather camped by us that night, a multi-medal winning Canadian Olympic cyclist and speed skater. Just to make us feel strong, you know? Needless to say we didn’t see her again. We saw yesterday that she was already three huge days ahead of us. She’s doing 25-30 miles a day.

We were raided by mice that night, as we are most nights. I deserved it as I had mocked the west coast mice on the Stehekin shuttle to some flippers. The rodent gods were obviously listening and decided to stick it to me by sending their best that eve to chew open the bottom of my lazily placed food bag. Luckily only ruining a bag of peanut butter pretzel bits. Everything else was untouched and the bag now with duct tape was good to go.

Those extra Hershey’s didn’t seem so heavy now we’d lost the pretzels and we headed off over the bridgeless creek, steeply upwards into the thick forest and the ever so slightly encroaching fog.

That second foggy night Jen woke and told a bear outside our tent (maybe) to fudge off loudly practically giving me a heart attack in the process. Might have been a deer or cougar I suppose. Whatever it was it snorted at the tent.

I hobbled out the next morning with a new little injury. My muscle on my shin was tight and “shin splints” was mentioned for a second time. Old Jake would’ve freaked out more but I’ve been through more than my share of tendon and muscle issues so after a minute of stress I figured out the stretches, necked an anti-inflammatory and rolled it out with my pole to prevent it getting out of control.

Jen had a similar experience with her calf and so did much the same with a similar result: other minor injuries that need to be managed on the daily that’ll fade with time. All part of the trail.

I had blocked thru hiking foot pain from my memory and thought I was immune. I’m definitely not, especially on a Sobo schedule. Foot pain is here to stay. Sometimes it is agonising, but usually it is bearable.

The views at times in this section were jaw dropping such as Mika Lake, still mostly frozen. We arrived to shock sunshine and the perfect lunch spot. If it had been sunnier I would’ve had a dip.

Mika Lake

Red and White Pass were intense and each time the fog dispersed enough to offer us a view or three. We got glimpses of pure magic before the grey curtain swept in again to cover the mountains. We had a rougher and more typically weather-swept Washington than the last section.

We covered the last 60 miles in three days and that was really something considering how challenging it was with extreme ups and downs, dangerously slippy snow covered passes (read Jen’s upcoming post for a related story) and the inevitable drizzle. The penultimate 19.7 mile day we did ended by 5pm in the blazing sun, our feet weren’t screaming and we had dried our gear and we felt like champions.

A new challenge awaited us though, clouds of mosquitoes and they’re here to stay.

When we arrived to Steven’s Pass, a ski resort on the highway we were very ready for a zero day, possibly a second one or at least a short second day.

We’re in Leavenworth, 35 miles from the trail. It’s a Bavarian themed town… ‘murikuh! Jen’s parents are very generously treating us. We’re here for the sausages and steins, the resupply and the mini golf. Absolutely love it.

We’ve got several things to sort out and buy and clean and send and collect and reorganise and eat of course. Busy as usual.

We now have our new tent – the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL3 which is bigger and a little lighter. It will help our sanity by having more space and a relative palace to hide from the coming mosquitoes.

Jen also has a new Enlightened Equipment quilt and is very happy. She’s in the bathroom using the tub to find an elusive hole in her pad. Once she’s found that, she’ll have the best sleeping setup.

Valle de Bravo overnighter

Jen went ahead to stay with her family and spend some time with her nephews in Portland, Oregon as I stayed on in el defetuoso (Mexico City – a play on words meaning it doesn’t work well) for another week. I didn’t have much planned apart from seeing people and ridding myself of possessions. Feels really good to go down to just two backpacks full of stuff, one of which is in the UK now; I can literally carry all of my things at once and that is pretty liberating. It was time to take it further though and give away or donate the rest of my stuff. My goal was to only have carry on luggage on my flight outta here.

A highlight of this week was paying a visit to a good friend of mine out of town. Engeli’s a friend and ex-colleague of mine from South Africa originally and has been in Mexico for even longer than I have. She was based in Mexico City for most of that time but relocated to the pueblo magico Valle de Bravo in the mountains a couple of years back and, wow, what a choice.

She has the bottom half of a tradionally Mexican house, tiled and wooded as you’d expect with a large garden and a westward facing balcony running its whole length, overlooking a now greening valley from the seasonal rains on the edge town. The valley is private land but she has access and hikes and bikes to the top of the hill each morning to a majestic view of town and its huge lake. The three times we’ve visited her we’ve really enjoyed this pre-breakfast hike to blow out the cobwebs.

Valle de Bravo

Engeli lives with the regal Chaman the Great Dane, Toffee the smiling, butt-wiggling ex-street dog done good and her now blind cat. It’s always a hive of activity even though life moves slowly in the countryside. The dogs run in and out to bark at other barks while the cat bumps along walls and gets stuck on window ledges, then they scratch at the door once the garden has bored them and Engeli opens the door.

She’s got the cooking skills of your grandmother but with the speed of not your grandmother. In the space of five hours we had eaten three times, including an amazing paneer curry. We caught up on her changing plans and my select tales from Jen’s and my holiday. Later her neighbour and friend popped down and we sipped beer and talked the evening away on the balcony while the earth span backwards from the sun.

The next morning we woke and hiked the usual route with Toffee and three of Eugenia’s dogs running alongside us, scaling inclines at the speed of Andrew Skurka circa 2007. Once we returned to the house, we ate cheesy eggs, packed our packs with gear, food and water (and tetrapack wine, naturally for an overnighter). Engeli has a lot of my gear from my Appalachian Trail thru hike to ensure she converts into a thru hiker one day. Chuckle. I was decidedly lacking gear, most of which was totally inappropriate for a backpacking trip, but what the hell, most of my nice new gear is in the US awaiting my arrival on Samish Island, WA.

On top of Monte Alto

We set out across town to the state park Monte de Alto which has numerous interlocking trails. However, since a huge forest fire last year, there have been new blazes placed generously all over the park forming four main circular routes on each of the hills, most of which boast amazing views. We were really crushing miles and ended up completing a little over 16 of them before setting up camp at the top of one of the hills as the drizzle came over and thunder rumbled in the distance. We pushed it a little too hard that day; I didn’t do enough stretching or have enough breaks. I need to learn from that lesson especially as the diet didn’t exactly work well this year.

As we tended to a very high maintenance campfire, the wood damp from the deluge the day before, we cooked up some ramen and mixed in Engeli’s homemade peanut sauce. The cheap wine went down well after a big day and we slurped up our ramen as we listened to tall pines crashing through the forest on the neighboring hill as lumberjacks felled those too badly burnt to remain.

Wet sticks after a storm

I slept incredibly badly, my old sleeping pad now leaking much faster than before and I ended up on the stony ground several times. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on my new pad and quilt that I’ll be using in the Olympic National Park and on the Pacific Crest Trail for the remainder of this year. Hopefully I selected well.

In the morning, strangely for Mexico it was still raining. Ee packed up our soggy tents and headed our way back to the house, thankful we’d driven to the trailhead as the rank outhouses didn’t look particularly appealing after a night of little sleep.

An hour or two later I said goodbye to Engeli and the animals and boarded a bus bound for el defetuoso, knowing Jen and I will surely meet up with her in the next couple of years for a long hike in British Colombia or Washington some summer week or two.

Morning mist on Monte Alto