Stretch 19, Steven’s Pass to Stehekin (and The End)

During last stretch, I gained a new appreciation for the most basic comforts of civilization. In previous stretches, I found myself longing for certain foods, a shower, cold drinking water, a chair–but never before this stretch had I so ardently wished for a roof and walls. So our criteria were pretty low for a place to stay at Steven’s Pass. When we got to the Mountaineer’s Lodge, with heat, electrical outlets, hot showers, beds, and best of all, a gear drying room, with hanging rods, shelves and warm, dry air circulating, we were over the moon.

We hung almost every item in our packs in the drying room, showered, ate, even found a ride to check out nearby Leavenworth. But more than anything, I enjoyed sitting on the couch in the cozy common area. I thought that 5 months of hiking would have prepared my body for anything, but after the cold and dramatic elevation changes of the last stretch, I found myself very sore, especially going down stairs. In the four-storied lodge my aches were all too apparent, to me and everyone else, as I teetered down the steps sideways, lowering both feet to the next step, one step at a time. There was a group of UW physics grad students also staying there for a weekend hiking retreat, and I’m sure that if any of them had an idea of what they thought a thru hiker would be like, I was not it.

We enjoyed ourselves, but with Canada still 180 miles away, we couldn’t relax for too long. So after 18 hours off-trail, we returned with dry gear and 5 days of food for the 109 miles before our next resupply in Stehekin. The sun was shining, and we felt very lucky that the forecast was mostly dry for the next 5 days. With the nice weather, and as it was the weekend, the trail was crowded. Something gave us away as thru hikers, and a handful of groups stopped us to ask questions about our trip. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t enjoy the attention, but all this chatting slowed us down. After 12 miles, though, the crowds thinned out, and once again, the trail felt like ours.

At this point, my cold was merely an annoyance, my nose stuffy then runny, and my ears unable to adjust to our changing elevation. Atlas, however, was not feeling well. He’d remained remarkably not sick so far, through my stomach bug and then cold, so it felt unfortunate but inevitable when he woke with a sore throat at the Mountaineer’s Lodge. But it escalated quickly. Throughout the day he felt dizzy. And when we made it to camp at dark, it was clear he had a fever. I was very concerned, wondering even if we should continue, but he assured me that he frequently had a fever when he was sick, and he could continue as usual.

I had to take him at his word, but still I was unable to drag him out of the tent at a normal hiking time. A natural morning person, that was usually my role. But I couldn’t do that to a sick person. So that day, and the following days, we started hiking pretty late, around 10 or 11. This really made it difficult to reach our 20+ mileage goals for each day, as it was becoming dark shortly after 7, and we could not travel very quickly on the steep and often uneven terrain of this stretch.

It was easy to become stressed thinking about our finish date, but early on, I decided to accept that we would not reach Canada when we’d hoped. It was very far from ideal, because of the imminent winter weather, and for Atlas in particular because he would have very little time after finishing before returning to Hungary. But I did not want to spend my precious final days on the trail stressed about this when there were so many things to appreciate. Except for one day, the weather nice. And it was beautiful! Stunning views at every crest, crystal clear alpine likes, rich fall colors, and again, almost no other people. Given our tired bodies and the cold and Atlas being sick, we enjoyed it as much as we could.

The day before we reached Stehekin, I started to feel not great. It was subtle–a mild headache and unusual tiredness—I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t just all the hiking taking its usual toll on my body. But that night, I had no appetite. I’d eaten enough Knorr rice sides on the trail that they were not the most appetizing on a normal night, but this night Atlas had to really push me to take a few bites. The next day, as we descended the final 12 miles into Stehekin Valley, I felt bad.

We reached the High Bridge Ranger’s station in time to take the 12:30 shuttle to Stehekin, 8 miles away. Our plan was to pick up the resupply package, shower, do laundry, sort out some transportation details, and get back on the trail that evening. We had just enough time to accomplish these things before the last shuttle back, but I felt very uncomfortable about returning to the trail. We decided to stay the night in Stehekin.

This turned out to be a good decision. That night was miserable. I went from feeling ‘kind of bad’ to ‘very terrible’ quickly. First I was too cold, even in a warm room, under the covers. Then I was too hot. Usually when my fever is only a couple degrees I can’t be sure without a thermometer. But I felt I was burning. I laid in a tepid bath. I drank a bunch of water, but in the middle of the night, it started flowing right through me. Along with not much else, as I had eaten very little the past 24 hours. I lost so much liquid I didn’t know how that much could have been in my body. I barely slept.

By the next morning (of my birthday), my fever had broken, but I felt so weak. Water and food were not staying in me. There was no way I could get back on the trail. Atlas and I were in a tough spot. He couldn’t delay getting back on the trail indefinitely, as he had flights booked out of the country. I didn’t know how long it would take me to regain my strength, and I couldn’t wait it out in Stehekin, where lodging was expensive. It was very hard to accept, but I needed to go home, and he needed to keep hiking. With that decided, I still needed to figure out how to get home.

Stehekin is on a lake, 4 hours by ferry from Chelan, which is a 3 hour drive from Seattle. With no cell reception or wifi, I had to rely on a payphone to make a plan. I never pick up calls from ‘Unknown’ and hate getting voicemails, so I expected making arrangements to be a big hassle. Thankfully, all I had to do was call my parents. My mom got in touch with my housemate Rachel, who got approval to leave work early in order to meet me that night at the ferry dock in Chelan. To make the long drive at such short notice without hesitation, Rachel was my hero. I could have had no better birthday present than that.

So that was it for me and the trail, this year at least. Even if I felt better in a few days, already more rain and snow was in the forecast. I did not want to go back into that, especially without Atlas. Missing the final stretch wasn’t hard. I know I will get to do that stretch at some point, along with the couple other stretches I missed. It was difficult to let go of reaching the terminus with Atlas, who I hiked with for nearly a thousand miles, and for whom the terminus was the end of a continuous hike from Mexico to Canada. This year, with the extreme conditions in the Sierras and the many wildfire closures, very few hikers achieved a continuous hike. I don’t know numbers, but I would guess fewer than 50.

But as I got better, I decided that just because I wasn’t doing the stretch didn’t mean I couldn’t be there at the northern terminus. I had planned to pick him up from Manning Park in Canada, the nearest exit point from the trail after the terminus. It was an 8 mile hike from the trailhead to the terminus, so I decided to do the hike and meet him there. I had left him with my SPOT PLB and GPS tracker that my parents had used to track me. It allowed me to know when to pick him up.

He made excellent time on the 80 miles without me, and less than three days after we parted, I was headed to Canada to meet him. I got up very early to ensure I could make the three and a half hour drive and 8 mile hike before 11, the earliest time I thought he might reach the border.  I brought with me a cupcake and a Hungarian flag. I had a great plan to leave the cupcake on the monument with the flag in it and hide. There was a huge flaw in this plan that didn’t cross my mind until I was there: chip monks. It was too late, though. I was already attached to this idea. So I spent two hours defending the cupcake from a distance: waiting out of sight from the trail, with a stockpile of rocks, chucking them at any little critter that make an attempt on my cupcake. I felt ridiculous, but it was good to have something to do while I waited. It was extremely cold.

Eventually Atlas arrived and was very surprised to see me.  We took pictures and celebrated. Completing the whole trail is a big deal for anyone, but he was also the first person from Hungary to do it. By the time we left I was ready for it. It was so cold!  We stopped at Manning Park Resort to take advantage of their special offers for thru hikers: free soda and free use of the pool facilities, which include a hot tub, sauna, and steam room. Eventually, we headed out, and I was able to give a ride to two other hikers headed towards Seattle: Zoro and Swede Racer. We stopped for dinner and to drop them off, and when we finally arrived at my home in Seattle, it had been a very long day.

Overall, the last stretches were not at all like I had imagined. There was bad weather, I got sick, we were slower than expected, then Altas got sick, then I got sick again… Despite all that, I’m not unhappy with the ending, and other than maybe bringing better rain gear, I would do it all the same. There is so much you can’t control about a thru hike. To enjoy things, you just have to be able to adjust.

So thats the end of it for this year, folks. If I’m able, I’ll be back at it next summer. Here are some pictures.


Stretch 18, Snoqualmie Pass to Steven’s Pass

**First, just an apology from my writing hiatus. I did not get eaten by the trail, I am home safe in Seattle, ready to fill you in with the end of my journey!**

After a somewhat harrowing first stretch in Washington, Atlas and I wanted nothing more than to just enjoy a day resting in Packwood. But as is the unfortunate case with all zero days, there was plenty to get done. First, we confirmed the rumor we’d heard while hiking–the trail closure ahead had expanded. The trail was closed from White Pass (where we had just exited) to Snoqualmie Pass, 100 miles ahead. The only detour options were on roads and very indirect, adding many miles to the stretch. Definitely not my jam, especially as I still recovered from that stomach bug, but we worked on a plan for Atlas to walk around the fire.

After I sent him on his way with a few of the most fun and committed road-walkers we know, Taylor and the Swiss, I had the whole day to make it to Seattle. My plan was to spend time at home and join Atlas when he made it to Snoqualmie Pass in four or five days. This would give me time to get well, catch up on blogging, send our last two resupplies, and beef up my gear with some items for the colder weather I knew would arrive soon.

And indeed, by the time Atlas was close to Snoqualmie Pass, the forecast was nasty–days of rain, freezing rain, and snow at higher elevations. It started just a couple hours before Cameron drove me to meet Atlas. As we stood in a parking lot just off the Snoqualmie Pass exit of i-90, the thought of getting back on the trail had never been less appealing. Cold rain fell steadily, heavy but not torrential, as if it were pacing itself, promising to be there for the long haul.  If it hadn’t been mid-September already, I would have waited it out. But I knew it could easily get worse in a couple weeks. There was nothing to do but find the trailhead and start walking.

A few stationary minutes in the rain had chilled my body, and I welcomed the uphill start to this stretch. By the time we’d gone a mile I was mostly warm and still mostly dry. We passed a group of day hikers- who would go out in this for fun, we wondered. After five miles and 2000 ft up, the terrain had become rocky, the trees thinned out to reveal dramatic views of cloud-shrouded, snow-dusted jagged ridges. The rain changed, first with icy clumps before it was small, icy flakes. A handful of backpackers were headed in the other direction, trips cut short, warning us that the weather would persist for days.

The sun’s meager affects dwindled as the day wore on, the grey becoming a bit darker and the temperature dropping slowly. Flakes gathered on the ground, and we slowed, careful not to stumble over rocks hidden beneath new snow. It was harder to stay warm at that pace. I got out my ski gloves and struggled to put them on my frozen hands. Around five, we realized we needed to think about where to camp. We had become accustomed to setting up camp at the first spot we found once we were ready to quit for the day. But in those conditions, we wanted to camp below the snow line if possible. As you get higher, temps are colder, tent sites are more likely to be exposed to the wind, and the snow is deeper. These things make a big difference, even in the shelter of a tent.

Despite having gone not quite ten miles, I wanted to camp within the next hour. So when we realized that the next tent site below 5000 ft was in 6 miles, we faced the trail ahead with somber resolve. The next 3 hours were very unpleasant. Moisture was finding its way into my gloves and boots. I wasn’t moving enough to keep my hands and feet warm. Soon my whole body felt cold. I knew I needed more layers, but I didn’t want to open my pack or take off my raincoat to get my puffy and put it on–it would let in snow. This entire time I was all too aware that the next three days could be just like this.

We continued and just as it was getting dark, the trail dropped to a point where the precipitation was an icy mix again. We stopped at the first flat spot we found, and made camp as quickly as possible. Unable to feel my hands, I struggled setting up the tent and afterwards, changing out of my wet hiking clothes. I wanted put on dry clothes and get in my sleeping bag right away, but as I took things out of my pack, I realized there was a lot of water, and I was not sure where it was coming from. My sleeping bag was wet in a couple places. After turning everything inside out, I found a couple holes in my once-waterproof pack liner. My already-bleak outlook on this stretch darkened.

I didn’t think it possible but the next morning the situation became more discouraging. I woke feeling underwater–clogged nose, ears, and sinuses; a pulsing, dull headache; and a sore throat. I didn’t want to move. Body heat had warmed the inside of the tent, but outside, thin snow blanketed the ground and the rainfly, and freezing rain continued to fall, though not as heavily as the night before. Unable to care about hiking, I tried to fall back asleep, stay inside my little cocoon of warmth. More than at any point on the trail, I never wanted to leave the tent. But after a couple hours of balking, we looked at the upcoming elevation profile. To camp below the snow line, we’d have to stop in the next 7 miles or after 20 miles. Feeling how I did and as it was already 10, we decided to do 7 miles.

As we descended, freezing rain and snow became just rain. It was light, but I still found myself getting soaked thanks to the horrid wet brush hanging over the trail, clawing at my legs with its rain slobber. The lower we got, the the thicker the brush. Berry bushes, baby trees, expired wildflower clumps, once benign scenery, became the the focus of all my frustrations with the weather. I began to really wish I had brought my rain pants. Fat droplets on the leaves seemed to flock to my leggings and trickle down into my boots, which quickly became sodden. Even with more layers, traveling almost entirely downhill, I was cold.  I became fixated on making a fire. I was sure that with a fire, we could warm up, maybe even dry out some stuff.

With such a low mileage target, we found a campsite early, and after setting up my tarp as a lean to near a fire pit, we began to gather firewood and tinder. It took some doing to get it started in the soggy weather, but we managed to make some modest flames. Without any dry firewood, though, we couldn’t make it big enough to provide substantial warmth. After so much time, I had to give up and retreat to the tent.

The next day we woke to realize some rodent had chewed a hole, two inches wide, in the bathtub floor of the tent. We didn’t know what was more upsetting, the hole or the fact that the little thief manage to carry out a dozen cookies, over half of our stores. It only took a half hour to patch the hole, but there was no getting the cookies back.

That day we needed to make more miles. The rain and snow was intermittent. We occasionally saw blue through swirling layers of clouds. And, in the afternoon, a brief spot of sunshine passed over us. Once we got out of the snow, we were even able to dry our tent and sleeping bags in a 20 minute gap between clouds. Feeling encouraged, we hiked until dark, making 19 miles.

So it went. Each day putting on wet clothes, climbing up to about 6000 ft and trudging through snow, descending a few thousand feet and wading through wretched, wet leaves, making camp and relishing time spent in the tent. But each day the weather got better and my cold improved. And, if I force myself see a silver lining, we did have the trail almost all to ourselves which was cool. We were much slower than expected; it took five days to do the 71 miles we originally planned to do in 3. But as we neared Stevens Pass, concern about our pace was completely overshadowed by the allure of the indoors, and we decided to spend the night in the Mountaineers lodge near the slopes.

I didn’t take too many pictures this stretch because my hands were too cold, but here’s what I got.