The 1200 mile carry

“I’m going to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring”, I told the Lyft driver as we headed into Portland. She was psyched about my plans and was asking if Jen would be suspicious and if I was nervous.

I’d told Jen that I was going to get a surprise for her as she hung out with her sister’s family. I tried to cover my tracks with small gifts and a series of cards for our second anniversary.

That didn’t justify a mystery trip into town though, so I just played dumb and figured she’d eventually forget.Time went by and the ring’s box sat in bubble wrap, wrapped in duct tape, in the bottom of my important things dry sack. As this bag has my ID and cards etc, it sat on every restaurant table and next to my sleeping bag every night. Jen thankfully never asked about that cuboid shape in the bag right it front of her.

A full 1200 miles and about seven weeks later, the Sierra mountains were at our feet. Now I had to decide where to pop the question.I had quickly given up on the idea of having a spot planned much prior as something could easily get in the way. Then logistical issues came to mind: what time of day would we be there? What about other hikers?! I didn’t want this to be a public show. What about the weather? What to do to celebrate, or otherwise?!

I decided then go for a place I had spent a day at four years before on my John Muir Trail hike. It was only another 6 miles further.

Thousand Island Lake should’ve been number one all along. The pristine lake sits below Banner Peak and is dotted with dozens of small islands. We approached the lake at sunset and found the perfect spot on the lake’s edge.We set up tent quickly by the water just in time to see the last whisps of orange clouds fade and as Jen heated up the Punjabi Potatoes by the tent, it turned out I was really nervous and Jen not at all suspicious.I just about managed to get the box in my hand the right way round and I plopped my knee down into the wet ground and popped the question.

Between bubbles

The time that you get back on trail from town positions you just ahead of some hikers and just behind others. Some folks have taken a day off, some just a few hours, and some don’t stop; town gives us hikers a good shuffle.

This is amplified around large towns and when there’s bad weather. Town is like a bottleneck or a vortex in these circumstances and then little newly formed bubbles of hikers are spit out into the wilderness the next day. All with newly stuffed food bags, some are even clean.

The shuffle reveals some old faces and some new and occasionally, somone cool you haven’t seen in a long time. We stop to chat and share stories and plans at spots on trail or simply walk and talk. We leapfrog with hikers for a couple of hours or maybe even days, until the next resupply point.

Previously we used to leapfrog around hikers for a couple of hours and then not see them again as we were the tortoises (who liked days off). We would see their names disappear into the future in the trail registers where hikers sign and date along the trail.

“Oh look, it’s Carjack, she’s 11 days ahead now!”

We had met Carjack by the Canadian border almost 3 months ago and as she had done 800 miles in the desert previously, she promptly disappeared over the horizon and her name got further and further ahead in the registers.

The pattern of seeing names we knew ahead of us became a little too common and we found ourselves needing to up the pace to be in the Sierra by mid-September. This the advised arrival date to avoid bad weather.

A typical trail register found along the trail

The last time I posted, we were a few days into our big 15 day push to gain back some miles we dropped in the lazy days of northern Oregon. Since then we’ve done several 30+ mile days.

During the push we found ourselves scanning registers we came across for names we knew to check our progress against others’.

“Scarecrow, this morning. Jukebox and HanSobo, two days ahead. Dozer he’s three days now, he was four. Carjack, just seven days ahead now.”

This new pattern now continued. We were somehow gaining ground on oher hikers! We walked from dawn to dusk, literally, every day with short breaks to beat the weather. As we got closer, it felt achievable but we were also getting burnt out. The day we left Sierra City was particularly hard on me, then we saw the snow forecast and we needed to do 75 miles in 48 hours to avoid being exposed on a ridgeline in a huge storm.

We hiked long into the night twice and got caught out, just, by the snow storm. We promptly got a ride into town and were very relieved we had been on the southern side of Dick’s Pass.

As I returned to our motel room in South Lake Tahoe later that day, my phone buzzed as we took a well deserved rest day after having hiked 625 miles in 25 days.

“Did I just see you walk across a parking lot in a towel?!!”, the text said. It was Carjack and she was in town. We had caught her up!

I had indeed been in a towel outside (laundry chores) and we agreed to meet for pizza. We toasted our success and shared stories of the trail and then promptly passed out long before normal peoples’ bedtimes.

Riders on the storm

Jake captured this moment in the winter wonderland heading down from the trailhead to South Lake Tahoe

“There’s a red flag warning,” Jake was checking the weather and speaking in the measured tone of a person who is definitely not freaking out.

We were already 23 miles into the day. And 68 miles from the trailhead closest to South Lake Tahoe.

“What?” I said. I had checked the weather earlier in the week and saw that it might rain, but a red flag means a storm.

“Wind gusts of 75 miles per hour… damaging winds,” Jake went on reading. “Snow showers… accumulation of three to five inches.”

It seemed impossible. The late summer sun had warmed us all day. The sky was a delicious blueberry.

Sun before the storm

We checked other sources. We checked other locations. They looked worse.

We exchanged glances. We expected storms. Jake and I hiked through the Sierra Nevada on the John Muir Trail in 2015 before we knew each other. We expected storms but not for another week or two. Plus we had been booking it for three weeks just to get to that spot. We had been keeping up with hikers far faster and far stronger. We were tired and ready for a day off.

We quickly agreed we would hike as far as we could that day and the next day.

A few hours later, we sat at picnic tables at Donner Pass, named for another set of ill fated travelers. We made dinner there and discussed our options. We searched online for what high wind feels like. Somewhere around 45 mph walking becomes difficult; around 60-70 mph trees can be uprooted. We found a bailout point “if things get really bad” about 28 miles ahead. Then we hiked on, hoping for the best. It was midnight when we laid out our sleeping quilts to cowboy camp under a nearly full moon and howling wind. We had hiked our longest day at nearly 37 miles.

Jake woke me at 6 in the morning as pink crept into the horizon. It was time to get up. The wind was already picking up over Tinker Knob. Another ridge beyond found us bracing against our trekking poles.

Windy but sunny

By the time we reached the “bailout point” that afternoon, the wind had died down a bit. Some friends caught up to us. They were discussing the possibility of hiking all night to avoid the storm. At this time we were in blazing sunshine. A sign declared 32 miles to the trailhead. We could do that mileage in a day easily but not after already hiking 20 miles.

Jake and I decided to press on for a few more hours. We would hike until 9 pm, set up our tent, sleep until 4 am, and hope that the storm hit an hour or two later than forecast.

We cooked dinner with the last of our fuel that night and set up in the most protected section of forest we could find. At one point, in the middle of the night I opened my eyes and saw that outside the tent, the trees were swaying in all directions. I closed up the tent and awoke before my alarm at 3:50. I began stretching my legs for the trail ahead.

We were up and out quickly. Hiking in the dark, we made our way toward Dicks Pass at 9,376 feet. The wind picked up. It threatened to knock us over at points.

Storm clouds gather

Off in the distance, I saw a bank of clouds galloping toward us. For the rest of the day, “Riders on the Storm” cycled through my head like a dirge. At the top of the pass, we ran into the first couple of hikers we saw that day and there was enough cell signal to check our fantasy premier league teams and text family.

On the way down, we stopped for peanut butter and jelly tortillas. I don’t even like PB&J. At this point on the trail, I eat anything. The break spot was sheltered from the wind and even sunny. We ran into a couple of hikers we hadn’t seen since Oregon. It was a strange reunion in the midst of impending doom. The sun gave us a false sense of security.

Hiking on, we ran into more people on long weekend excursions. We hiked past glorious lakes lined by fireweed and paintbrush. The wind whipped our cheeks and clouds gathered. Just after Lake Aloha, hail began to fall. Then it became rain, then sleet, then snow. We were still two hours from the trailhead… two hours ahead in wet snow. Faster than I’ve ever experienced, the snow began to stick. The temperature was dropping. It coated granite and turned dirt trail into a river. I began to panic. I couldn’t get warm. My beanie and down jacket were in my pack. I wasn’t thinking straight.

Jake stopped me to put on more layers and we resumed the climb. We slipped over rocks and hoped we could make it to the trailhead before our resolve dissolved. We skidded past other hikers. We slid in ever accumulating snow, seeking out the trail as it disappeared before our eyes.

Finally we made it to the trailhead. Looking for a hitch, we saw a section hiker getting into a Jeep. Jake dashed over to ask for a ride. The driver warned us that his Jeep was a convertible but we were just happy to be on the move. Less than an hour later we were washing the dirt off our feet and planning our town meals.

In the end we hiked 90 miles in two and a half days. We got to town tired, soaked and hungry but glad to be dry.

Marble Mountain

We made it into our campsite in Mable Mountain Wilderness as dark arrived. The deep oranges still stained the sky behind us on the (now Caifornian) horizon, the blood red sun had been swallowed by mountains stacked in flat layers of ever lighter blues.

Sunset – last night

Getting into camp just at sunset is a fairly regular occurrence on the PCT, especially as days have become shorter because daylight means walking.

We allow ourselves enough time to go to the bathroom, sleep seven or so hours, brush our teeth, filter water, eat and rub our painful feet a bit but that’s about it. Every waking moment is walking.

In Washington we used to be quite slow risers and tended to get hiking around 8am after eating fancy oatmeal and dried fruit, and a coffee maybe.

Now we’re early risers, typically we get out in twilight and now we hike till dark. No more oatmeal, no more coffee. Now bars and caffeinated drinks mixes. So cliché.

A typical day on trail now begins half an hour before setting out with grunts and air mattresses squeaking. You scan the aches and pains. All there? Check. A new one? Sit up and stretch a bit as you eat a bar and drink something.

Once we’ve eaten first breakfast in our quilts, we break down the tent and roll up our pads, stuff everything in our packs. A quick stretch and maybe a cat hole digging later and we’re ready to go.

We head off and cover as many miles before the sun starts beating down, usually eating second breakfast on the move. Typically chatting and discussing the pros and cons of large mayonaise squeezey bottles in our foodbags or other similarly deep questions.

This particular morning, we had a large goal in mind, 31 miles coming out of Seiad Valley, California. The first 17 miles from our campsite is uphill and continuous but elevation profiles make it look more like a landscape of Mordor. It wasn’t so bad to be honest but it was basically like climbing Snowdon twice in a morning.

We walk and talk, we walk and joke we walk separately, we walk and listen to podcasts, we walk in silence, we walk and dance while listening to music then we break. Every five or so miles. I’m usually lagging behind.

When we break, we filter water and eat, hopefully in a spot that offers both comfort and vista. Usually it’s next to a stream or on a log next to a tree though. We put our feet up and stretch. Once the gummies are eaten, time to move on.

We walk more and deal with the sweltering heat of the afternoon, plastering on the sunscreen and donning hats. Enduring all too common burn areas and being thankful for tree cover shade. A quick shower by dumping two litres of ice cold water over our heads, snatching our breaths to help with the intense heat and we move on again.

After repeating this a few times, all too quickly, the sky darkens and the horizon lights up in an orange blur and we have almost reached our target. We find a spot to camp, wherever is closest, put up the tent, inflate the pads and start up the stove. A quick “yeah, we did it” and then we drift off to sleep, ready to continue on the same path in the morning.

Sunrise – this morning

Hello, town. Goodbye, pain.

The final miles are the worst when you’re looking forward to getting into town. We don’t stop often on these runs and this stretch was the longest we’d done, nineteen miles southbound into Cascade Locks.

Town feels next door when you set out at first light on that morning before beer and cheeseburgers. You wake, stir your throbbing feet alive in your quilt and struggle to stretch to touch your toes as you chew into first breakfast. Everyone is buzzing a little about the prospect of food, and food and more food.

Once the initial adrenaline boost dies down, our destination seems to get further away the closer we get. It’s getting hotter and our feet are barking at us like rabid hounds. The 2000 foot climb just to go down 3500 into town seems utterly pointless at times like these. A moment of hiking, staring at scrolling rocks like a manic computer game can be blissful meditation, but today it was all encompassing pain.

We had done this section relatively quickly, keeping up with the hiking machines that flipped from the desert and breaking our own mileage records. We saw hikers we assumed were days ahead. We felt good about our progress and our ability to keep up with the younguns.

But our feet were beaten and bruised. Trail discomfort is something akin to a state of permanent fleeting pain. It might be your heel for five seconds, your achilles for three days or a shin for six weeks: you’re always dealing with some issue that could make you stronger or equally knock you off the trail if you don’t tend to it. Jen calls it “walking the tightrope between adrenaline and injury”.

Due to this increased focus on our bodies and miles, we have struggled to post on the blog. We just haven’t had the time. We’ve gone from 8-12 mile days in the Olympic National Park to 20-27 mile days in the past couple of weeks on the PCT.

In the past seven days we have hiked over 150 miles and in the last two days alone we completed two marathons. This leaves less time for other things as practically every waking moment is focused on walking or preparing for walking.

This focus is necessary though and needs to continue in Oregon as we move towards a comfortable experience in the Sierras, a place we have both hiked before and have no desire to experience in freezing dangerous conditions that are common in October.

Yet we can’t only look to the future too much now, or focus on the pain either. We must enjoy the present, especially this cider that I have in my hand, a breakfast burrito I’ll have tomorrow, a burger and PBR I just had, biscuits and gravy I ate this morning, the free beer that’s coming this afternoon, the showers over there and every other joy town brings.

This is our day off walking and we will enjoy it. A lot. Miles and rocks can wait for tomorrow. Pain takes a back seat for a few days after these trips.

A distant rumble

I was half awake at 2am in our camp at Susan Jane Lake aside a retreating bolder covered mountainside that towered a thousand feet above us. Two leaves brushed along the tent fly making semicircular sillouetes for me to stare at while my thoughts went round my head of the days ahead. Everything else in the valley was dead still. Suddenly out of that ocean of stillness came a rapidly approaching rumble.

We had walked out of town after two wonderfully relaxing days of sausage and cider with Jen’s parents in Leavenworth. It was time to get serious with some real hiking in this 70-mile section from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie. We have to move now, we should be doing 20+ mile days every day till November to make it before the snow comes. My feet hurt just thinking about it.

Our campsite

The problem that day was we left late and weren’t far from civilisation when we decided to camp early due to post-zero day laziness, sore knees and a even sorer Washington apple filled head.

As listened to the rumble I wondered if it was truck shifting down gears on the highway we had crossed earlier and remembered living close to large avenues in Mexico City. But there was a whole mountain between us and the highway. Maybe it was a plane?

I started to slip off to sleep again and as I drifted off I heard the same sound again in the distance. This time it was deeper and louder. It came from the west with a dull but rapidly increasing rumble, then the sound got louder and closer, then sharper as rocks shifted on our valley’s walls.

The adrenaline started surging. We were having an earthquake. My body always reacts faster than my own realisation of what’s going on. After experiencing being in large quakes, your body takes over in future situations. Not much time for rational thought, just enjoy the rush and hope you’re in the right spot.

I heard bolders shift, crack and clack together close to us across the water and at the very same time the floor jolted up. My sleeping pad amplified the wave.

Then it was gone even faster than it came and again it was just me again in my rational thought but with my eyes wide, pressed against my pad and the feeling of four espressos inside.

We found out later that it was a 4.8 and close to the trail. It was the talk of the trail the next morning.

Rescue on Red Pass

Jake crossing a dangerous snow bank earlier in the trail.

“Yoohoo!”

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.**