First of all: WE MADE IT!!!!! We made it to Canada. But getting there was truly an adventure – and an emotional roller coaster, to say the least. Just 4 days before we made it to the border, we were in a bar with tears in our eyes, coming to terms with the fact that our hike was most likely over. So let me fill in the gaps, and spare no detail.
We finally left Stevens Pass after taking 3 zeros to allow the worst of the rain/snow storm to pass. We were dropped off by Ashe’s brother, where we found Japanese hiker Goku sitting by the trailhead. He doesn’t speak much English but managed to explain that after hiking 30 miles out from Stevens Pass, he had turned back. He just kept repeating the phrase “many snow” over and over again… and with that as our only update on trail conditions, we headed out. We soon learned that many hikers had been forced to zero in their tents during the storm, and that there was a lot of snow on the passes. Over the next day and a half, we passed 7 thru hikers who had turned around and were heading the other way, all of whom had weathered the storm on trail and said they didn’t feel safe continuing on. Not the best way to start our section.
On the second day out, we met back up with long-time hiking buddy Shedder, who caught up to us from Stevens. We hiked on over rolling alpine meadows, with a few breaks here and there in the drizzling rain. The first snow we encountered was on Red Pass, where many of the hikers had turned back or hunkered down in their tents. Fortunately, by the time we went over the pass, there had been at least 20 hikers in front of us, packing down the snow and blazing the trail. It was slick at some points, and I sure wouldn’t want to cross it in blizzard-like conditions, but we went right over it with little trouble.
After Red Pass, the trail became very overgrown and was covered in large blowdowns (fallen trees). We made our way through the foliage and over, under, and around all the trees, but it was slow going. It added an extra layer of challenge to a section that was already extremely difficult due to the cold, constant drizzle and a severe elevation profile. We were trying to cover big miles and push into Stehekin by midday on day 5. So on the third day, we hiked 25 miles, covering 8000 feet of elevation gain and 8500 of elevation loss, including an hour in the dark, during which we overshot our campsite by half a mile and had to backtrack (making for a grand total of 26 miles). It rained and snowed on us lightly that day. My legs were burning.
On our last night and day into Stehekin, it began to rain harder. And for the last 10 miles in particular, it poured. By this point, we were physically and mentally exhausted, all our gear was wet from rain and/or condensation, our clothes were wet, and our feet were constantly freezing. I would have thoughts like, “I wonder how long it takes to get Trench Foot.” But at long last, we made it to Stehekin.
Stehekin is a small, small town in North Cascades National Park, located on the north end of Lake Chelan. There are no roads connecting it to the outside world; it can only be reached by boat, float plane, or by foot. The Park Service operates a shuttle that takes people from the trailhead to various places around the town, including an amazing bakery and the lodge where we were staying. After standing in the pouring rain for 30 minutes waiting for the shuttle to arrive, we joyfully got on the bus (our first shelter from the rain in 5 days), stocked up on baked goods at the bakery, and then arrived at the lodge, where we immediately checked into our room, took hot, hot showers, and spread out all our gear to dry.
There were a number of other hikers at the lodge in Stehekin, and they told us that lots of people were calling it quits and getting on the boat to Chelan. “Winter is here,” they said. “It’s over.” The storm had dropped tons of snow on the trail north of us. And there was another system moving in the next day, which was expected to drop a lot more snow – and at lower elevations. We were too physically and mentally exhausted to deal with this news at the moment, so we decided to zero in Stehekin and take some time to think about our next move. We caught the Washington/Arizona football game on TV in the common room, drank a beer, and slept deeply. The next day (after watching an amazing Seahawks game vs. the Texans), we made a plan. We would hike the 19 miles to the aptly-named Rainy Pass, which we knew would be mostly snow free due to its elevation. From there, we would hitch down Highway 20 into the town of Winthrop, where we knew that at least a dozen hikers were holed up and trying to figure out their next move.
When we left Stehekin, the very tops of the hills and mountains surrounding Lake Chelan were topped with fresh snow and the air was cold and crisp, but we were ready to get on with our hike – only 80 miles from the border. We slowly climbed away from Stehekin and toward Rainy Pass. The weather was fine until about 3 miles south of the pass, when a light snow started to fall. The light snow soon turned into heavy, wet snow as we approached the pass, and by the time we had hiked the 19 miles, we were chilled to the bone but happy to think we’d be in a bed again that night. Looking fairly pathetic, we easily caught a ride down to Winthrop with a nice guy who was on his way to Pullman. As we traveled to the east side of the mountains, the sun started shinning through and we completely forgot that we were being snowed on only half an hour prior. We checked into another motel and started to contact some of the hikers who we knew were in town.
Winthrop is a western-themed town with old western facades and business names like “The Emporium” and “Jack’s Saloon.” It was kind of a fun place to plan for our last push to the border. We met up with some hikers, many of whom we hadn’t seen in hundreds of miles, and started planning. A large group of our friends were leaving the next day to brave the snow out of Rainy Pass. We decided to wait another day for more weather to pass before we made our push. This also meant that the large group in front of us would navigate and break the trail for us (cut tracks in the snow). That night, we said goodbye to our friends and wished them luck.
The next day, we finished gearing up for our wintery trek with additional wool layers, extra socks, a thermos, snow gaiters, and micro spikes (which attach to your shoes for extra traction on ice or slick surfaces). We thought about getting waterproof boots but didn’t want to spend the money on them for just 60 miles of hiking (I would later regret this decision). We spent the rest of the day just poking around town, talking with some of the hikers we were planning to head out with the next day. But around 5 o’clock, we received word that the hikers who had left that morning had been forced to turn back. It was devastating news. We met them at the Saloon to hear their story.
They had made it 6 miles from Rainy Pass to an area just past Cutthroat Pass, at around 7000 feet. They had encountered waist-deep snow and white-out conditions. Showing us pictures and videos of them struggling through the snow, they described the trail as “impassable.” We were crushed. There were maybe 12 hikers in the bar, all exchanging strategies for an alternate route at lower elevation, telling stories from their attempt, and crying as they grappled with the fact that they would not be able to finish the trail. We were trying our best to come to terms with the fact that we might not make it to the border via the PCT. It was a tough pill to swallow. Tears came to my eyes as I thought of giving up after all this time and effort, and Ashleigh was sobbing.
Then, a hiker who we had only met once, briefly in Bend, walked into the bar. He had gone up with a different group of hikers the same day and was turned back as well. Ashleigh immediately began talking to him. His name was Sneaks, and he was the first and only hiker to tell us that he thought the trail was doable, just extremely slow going. That was all we needed to hear. We had to at least try to make it on the PCT. So we began to plan our own push up into the snow with him. We learned that there was another group of hikers camped out at Rainy Pass who were also going to try the PCT early the next morning. In addition, there were 4 others in Winthrop and a group in Mazama nearby that were planning to try, plus us and Sneaks. We figured it would be a good group of hikers, and that many would be breaking trail ahead of us.
The next morning, we caught a ride to Rainy Pass with our friend Dishcloth. He dropped us off at the trailhead, and we were met there by a large group of hikers. We quickly realized, however, that virtually all of them had bailed and were planning to take an alternate route instead of the PCT. They would road walk from Rainy to Ross Lake, which sits at much lower elevation, and then take a trail along the east bank of Ross Lake up to the Canadian border. Suddenly, the big team of hikers we’d expected to hike out with had shrunk to a team of 8.
Undeterred, we climbed out of Rainy Pass and soon hit the snow. It gradually became deeper as we went, but we were following the tracks of the groups who turned back the previous day, as well as those of Sneaks and Acid Glasses who had hiked out just ahead of us, so we were moving at a relatively good pace. We ascended to just under 7000 feet at Cutthroat Pass and found ourselves in snow 3 feet deep, with more snowing falling. We slowly made our way about a mile further before running into Acid Glasses and Sneaks. Glasses had decided to turn back, and Sneaks didn’t want to go on alone. We were not prepared to be defeated just yet and decided to push on with Sneaks.
By now, we were at the point where everyone had turned around the previous day. We now had to break our own trail through the snow, just the 3 of us. Only about a hundred yards later, we reached a point where there were cliffs in front and to the right of us and only the sheer mountain to the left. We knew there were some switchbacks descending from the ridge but had no idea where they were. We wandered around for about 10 minutes trying to get our bearings, but the snow was falling hard, and we couldn’t see anything beyond a hundred feet. We couldn’t find the trail, and the drop offs were too steep in all directions for us to gamble on the route. Then, just as we were preparing to throw in the towel, John, Maggie, Hannah, and Hops showed up. John and Maggie quickly decided that they were done and turned back. Hops and Hannah wanted to push on, and Hops had a fairly accurate GPS on his phone. So we slogged on, now a team of 5. He would point in the general direction of the trail, and we would wade through the snow to get there; then we would stop and check again.
It was incredibly slow going. We were post holing with every step, which means we would sink into the snow thigh deep. We were only covering about half a mile an hour, if that. I was starting to get cold and had sharp pains in my toes and fingertips. As long as we were moving at a decent pace, we could keep our blood pumping and stay warm enough, but we were now moving way too slow. I would look up and see nothing but white everywhere, and there we were in waist-deep snow, not sure which direction we should go. I didn’t know if this was brave or stupid, or some combination of both. I came close many times to just saying, “This is insane. We need to turn around.” Soon, we were all too cold and tired to go on. We had only gone 7.7 miles, but we needed to set up camp and get warm. So we packed down some snow, set up our tents, and crawled into our sleeping bags. It was only 3:30pm, but we would remain in our tents for the rest of the afternoon, thawing our feet. It was Ashleigh’s 28th birthday.
About an hour later, we started hearing voices. We stuck our heads out of our tents and saw a group of 6 thru hikers with snowshoes on, all in good spirits (Nightcrawler, Pimplimp, Hurculeas, Rafiki, Krusteaz, and K-Pax). We had completely forgotten about the group of hikers leaving behind us with snowshoes! It was so wonderful to see them. They had been following our tracks and decided to push on past us, which meant that in the morning, we could follow them. We wouldn’t have to navigate or break the trail!
The next day, we quickly caught up to the snowshoers, who had camped just 2 miles past. We were still post holing in their tracks, but it wasn’t as deep or as often, and we no longer had to navigate, which saved a lot of time. We all decided to stick together and hike to Harts Pass that day, as 2 of the snowshoers had their parents meeting them there with trail magic. Harts Pass is the only place with road access between Rainy Pass and the border, and we knew we could bail to town from there if conditions were unsafe. So we hiked on with them, across steep, snow-covered faces and along ridges at 7000 feet. It was sunny that day, and for the first time, we could see the beautiful snowy Cascades.
As the day stretched on, we were making steady progress but not moving very fast. Everyone was adamant about making it to Harts Pass that day, so we slogged on into the evening and then into the night. It was dark, and we were hiking closely together with our headlamps, which made us look like a little train moving in the darkness. We were passing over some high-elevation ridges and steep mountain faces. It seemed more than a little crazy to be doing these things at night, and for the first time on the trail, I was longing for an ice axe. It was so cold that I had to punch a hole in the ice that formed over my water bottle when I wanted a drink. At 10:45pm, we finally rolled into Harts, after hiking for 14 hours and covering 23 miles in the snow. It was one of the most physically exhausting days I ever had on the PCT.
We were met by Hurculeas’ and Pimplimp’s parents, who greeted us with cold pizza and cookies. All I could do was shove 2 slices in my face, then wander off to set up camp. My toes were in a lot of pain, and I started thinking I might have mild frostbite. After setting up our tent, I quickly got in, exchanged my soaking wet socks for 3 pairs of dry ones, and shoved a pair of hand warmers into them. But my feet and toes continued to have sharp pain for another 30 minutes or so. It was excruciating, but eventually they warmed up, and we were able to sleep a little.
We left late the next morning, around 11am, and said thank you and goodbye to Hurculeas’ and Pimplimp’s parents. There were only 30 miles to go, and we were excited to get going, even though we were physically done. The weather was great and the hiking easier. We covered maybe 10 miles in little-to-shallow snow, and we were able to put in 16 miles that day. We camped alone with Sneaks that night; 4 hikers were ahead of us and 3 behind (Rafiki had been forced to get off at Harts in order to meet a travel deadline). We were able to find a bunch of dry wood and made a great campfire. We had decided to go for the border the next day. It would be our last night on the trail.
Around 10pm, we were tucked into our sleeping bags when we started to hear voices and saw lights shining into our tents. We poked our heads out to see Midnight Rider with her brother Cameron, along with Rustic, hiking south with Valentino (Midnight Rider’s horse). They had spent the entire afternoon (some 6 hours) on the side of a steep face just a mile ahead of where we were camped, trying to get Valentino moving. Midnight Rider has been riding Valentino since Mexico – she actually started the same day as us. She’s done every foot of the trail except for the last 60 miles but has struggled to get Valentino accustomed to the snow. Midnight Rider, Cameron, and Rustic were constantly hiking out ahead of the horse to pack down the snow so that he wouldn’t sink in, but this would leave Valentino standing in the snow for long periods of time. And that afternoon on the side of that mountain, Valentino just lost it. He was rearing up and running around on the steep face, sometimes dragging Midnight Rider behind on a rope. The group’s gear tumbled down the side of the mountain, and Cameron had to go retrieve as much of it as he could but was too exhausted to climb back up. They were so exasperated that we couldn’t fully understand everything that had gone wrong, but we do know they had activated the SOS signal on their emergency beacon. They would later cancel it. By the time they had backtracked to our camp, they were exhausted and shaken, and Cameron repeatedly said that they and Valentino almost died.
The next morning, we woke early and said goodbye to the horse crew, as they were planning to hike south back to Harts Pass that day. We hiked over the ridge and onto the face that had given Midnight Rider and her team so much trouble. We saw tracks in the snow zigzagging all over the place from their crisis but eventually caught the trail and moved on. After scrambling over a few huge washouts, we caught up with the 4 snowshoers in front of us.
We hiked along in deep snow and hit 7000 feet a couple more times but soon began a long descent toward the border. After we descended below 5500 feet, the snow got lighter and we were able to cruise toward our finish line. As we hiked, I could feel the miles melting away, and with every step, I felt like I was making substantial progress toward the end. My adrenaline started to kick in, and the anticipation was growing; I felt like I was going to burst. Finally we reached a point where we could actually see the clear cut that is the Canadian border! We hiked quickly down one more switchback away from the border (of course), and emerged next to Monument 78 (the Northern Terminus of the PCT)! We had made it!
I can’t describe the waves of emotions that overtook me when we reached the border. It was a mixture of joy, sadness, relief, happiness, and many more. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life – almost like an out-of-body experience. We had been dreaming of this moment for 2 and a half years. To finally reach our goal, especially considering what the last week had been like, was overwhelming. I popped open a bottle of champagne that we had carried all the way from Stehekin and passed it around. We all signed the register, took our victory photos, and sat around and took in the scene. In all, I think we stayed about an hour at the monument, but it was beginning to get dark, and so we had to move on.
Cruelly, after you reach the monument, you still have to hike almost 9 miles out to Manning Park, where you can get transportation back to civilization. We basically ran those last miles, most of them in the dark, but eventually made it to the lodge. There, we ran into Chozen One, who (in an incredible feat of courage and determination) had hiked the section from Harts Pass to Manning Park by himself, breaking trail alone about a day in front of us. Manchurian and Rafiki were also there.
They informed us that most of the hikers who had taken the road walk had made it to the Ross Lake junction but no further. At the Ross Lake trailhead, they were turned away by rangers and forbidden to go any further, as their intended alternate trail was located in a National Recreation Area and had been closed due to the government shutdown. (Five hikers slipped through before the rangers showed up, including Manchurian, who saw the rangers and literally ran down the trail before they could stop him.) It was heartbreaking news – after having their hikes derailed by snow, these hikers had made their peace with the fact that they would have to take an alternate route to Canada, only to have their 2660-mile journey come to a crashing halt 30 miles from the border as a result of Washington politics. Talk about salt in the wound. It was awful to hear, and we could have easily been with them.
We were particularly bummed, as we had expected most of the Ross Lake hikers to be celebrating at Manning Park that night and were looking forward to seeing them and having a chance to say goodbye. Instead, there were only a few of us there. We sat and talked with them and their families about the trail and how it felt to finish. It was a bittersweet moment; everyone knew it was the end of a great adventure. Though we didn’t want the day to end, we were soon too tired to keep our eyes open and checked into a room at the lodge. Unfortunately, the restaurant had closed long before we arrived and we were too tired to cook any food, so our victory meal that night was a bag of Cheetos, some donuts leftover from breakfast, and a multi-vitamin in bed. The Wizard of Oz was on television, and we watched until we fell asleep.