Thru-hiking and Life

June 20, 2019

The snow that had been falling all day turned to sleet just as I came over the pass. 

Now, in freezing rain, I make my way quickly along a trail that follows the ridge through a scree field, just below the top. Most of the snow is gone by now, the summer solstice, but not all of it. As I pick my way across a field of wet, icy snow I think about the fact that I will be crossing this patch of snow again in a day, slide down towards my target patch, a snowless trail made of loose rocks, and….

FUCK!

Fuck, fuck, fuck, this fucking hurts

I gotta get off this ridge, then I can rest and assess the damage to my ankle. 

No, sit here for a minute. This is a really bad sprain, I should rest for a minute.

I should not have been rushing to get across a snow field, but the trees that are about a half mile ahead look so much nicer than this exposed ridge while melting ice is falling from the sky. I should not be rushing now, either. Well, I can’t really rush like I was before I rolled my ankle back there, making more pops than I can count as my worn out trail runner hit loose rock, getting just enough traction to send my body weight tumbling over my right leg and down the slope, leaving my foot planted in the rocks and bending my ankle in ways evolution did not account for. But I can hobble rush now, and I am going as fast as I can because those trees up there still look so much better than this exposed ridge in the ice rain. 

I get to another snow field now. As I carefully pick spots where my feet won’t slip, I realize this sprain is as bad as I initially thought. 

Shit, I can’t put that much weight on my right ankle

Okay, dig your trekking pole in to get some weight off it

Fuck, this hurts

And I’m falling. 

No, this is more sliding down a steep patch of slushy snow than falling.

Well at least I’m not falling, but I’m going to have to stop my downward trajectory with my feet on those watermelon-sized rocks down there because damn it would hurt to have gravity drag me over those rocks. 

FUCK!

That really hurt. 

But, stopping my downward digression down this snow patch with my very recently very badly sprained ankle was probably better than bouncing down the rocks any farther. Unless I never wanted to get up again, of course, which I do. And speaking of which…

Okay, you’re not falling anymore, let’s assess this situation. 

Nothing seems broken. I can move my legs. One of my trekking poles somehow made it out to the middle of the 30 foot wide snowfield, while the other was within arm’s reach from where I lay in the muddy snow. Oh yeah, I am now thoroughly soaked–my fleece, my shorts, my tights, my wind pants–all soaked. The only dry clothing items I now had were my puffy jacket and a rayon sleeveless hawiian shirt, but I’m not seriously injured to the point of immobility. 

Let’s not think about the soggy clothes yet, not till you crawl across this snow field, grab that trekking pole, and make it back up to the trail and off this pass. 

Even then, maybe wait until you’re out of this freezing rain. 

Okay, you got this, just crawl out there, grab the trekking pole, then you’ll have something in each hand to stab into the ground and pull yourself up with. 

I think at this point the sleet got heavier, or it turned to a heavy rain, or it just seems like the precipitation became more intense in my memory, because this was a very dramatic situation and we know how our brains work. 

I ease my way out onto the snow, staying along the edge of the patch where there are rocks jutting up so I can “walk” on the rocks while resting my hands on the snow above. Once I am positioned below my stray trekking pole I crawl up the 45 degree slope of snow. The snow feels like a gas station slushie without all the sugar and food coloring, okay maybe a little food coloring–a kind of greyish-brown, the color of the rocks around here mixed with dirt. This is definitely just rain falling now, I wish it would turn back into snow so I could stay drier, oh wait… 

Crawling back to the rocks hurts, I can feel the blood pulsing through my ankle all the way up my right leg, every movement hurts, whether I’m putting pressure on that side of my body or not. How am I going to walk if even crawling hurts? Well, I’ve made it back to the trail now, soaking wet and, I’m just now realizing, covered in mud, I guess that’s what happens when you go slip ‘n sliding through the snowy mud. 

Alright, you made it back to the trail, sit and rest for a minute, then get up. 

As I sit in the middle of the trail, cold, wet, in pain, and generally miserable, I start to panic a little. I’m not thinking of much except for my sleeping bag and tent, but I’m not there yet, wherever there is. I definitely can’t pitch my tent here so it’s time to move on. Well, time to find out how I’m gonna walk I guess. 

Walking hurts, but not anymore than it did before my second fall on this ridge. 

Crossing another snowfield on a sunnier day.

What happened to you?!

Oh my god, Charm! I’m so glad at this moment to see another human, let alone a friend that I’ve had for the last 800 miles of trail. 

I fell, sprained my ankle, then fell again down another snow field

…so, next available camp site? 

…yeah

Just this morning Charm and I woke up in a yurt that happened to be unlocked. It was snowing yesterday too. I know that was trespassing, technically, but it was snowing. Charm and I started hiking the PCT on the same day, and now here we were, 2 months later, on a pass in northern Washington, where we came to escape the snow of the High Sierras, in the snow-rain. I hobbled along, relying heavily on my trekking poles every other step. The rain has turned back to snow again, and I’m still soaked.

We leave the grey, rocky path behind up as the trail turns to dirt, er, mud, and we make it to some trees. I want to stop because my ankle is throbbing, but don’t want to stop until I find a place to set up my tent. I point out a very bad place to set up my tent to Charm and he gives me a look that says I see you’re in pain, but not there. He’s right, I think, and trudge on. 

After what feels like forever I find a flat patch of grass that will have to do for me tonight. I can see water pooling up in part of the area but I am crashing hard from the adrenaline rush that just powered me off that pass and there is a hill up ahead, not even a steep hill, but I just can’t go any farther. 

I’m stopping here. I mumble, and give Charm the this is all I’ve got face

Okay, I bet there’s a better spot up in those trees, I’m gonna go check it out. 

Okay. 

And he’s gone up the hill.

I set up my tent as quickly as possible as the snow starts to fall harder. There’s a stream nearby, maybe I can soak my ankle in that tomorrow if the weather clears. By this point I’ve set up my tent 100s of times, so I’m inside and out of the weather in less than 5 minutes. I start shivering almost immediately. 

I strip off all my soaking wet clothes: fleece, long sleeve hiking shirt, tights that I shouldn’t have been hiking in so I’d have something dry to sleep in, wind pants that are definitely not waterproof but I did sew myself, shorts, underwear, and socks, I throw each item in the corner of my tent as I take it off. I put on my rayon hawaiin shirt and puffy jacket and….this is why I shouldn’t have been hiking in my tights in the rain. I guess my sleeping bag will have to do for my legs. The floor of my tent is now very wet, probably from a combination of my wet self and the wet ground in the spot I decided was good enough to pitch my tent. I’ll have to rely on my sleeping pad to keep me above water tonight. I’m so cold I just lay down and wrap my sleeping bag around me as tightly as possible. 

I should say that my sleeping bag isn’t actually a “bag.” It’s really just a down blanket that I wrap around me and use some elastic straps to hold in place around my sleeping pad. It’s lighter this way, but a nice heavy sleeping bag sure would be great right now. I lay there in the mummy position and focus hard on being warm. I’m not shivering anymore but my will is only so strong right now. I know eating something will help but my ankle hurts whenever I move. I pull an arm out from the warmth of my cocoon and reach into my soaking wet backpack. I pull out a pack of fruit snacks, and with both arms out of my blanket cocoon I rip the fruit snacks pack open and dump all 7 of them in my mouth. I chew, swallow, grab a water bottle and take a sip of very cold water. 

Okay, sugar helps right now. Do that again. 

I take out another packet of fruit snacks, still trying to not move my legs, rip it open, and dump it in my mouth. I Chew, swallow, and take another sip of water. I take another sip of water even though it is still really cold; I know I did not drink enough water while hiking today. 

Hot food now, you can do it! Think of how good that will be!

I pull myself into a seated position and pull my small titanium pot off the tent floor. I unzip my tent to access the small vestibule and oh look, snow is peeking under my tent’s rainfly. I thread my tiny backpacking stove onto the tiny backpacking fuel canister, dump 12 ounces of water into my bottle, turn on the gas, light the stove, and set the pot and lid on top. After about 2 minutes I check the water, there are some bubbles in there so it is hot enough. I turn off the stove, wrap the pot in a buff, set it in my lap, dump a package of lime ramen noodles into the hot water, put my jacket hood back on, and wait. The pot warms me up from my core out. I know that the warm broth will do even more to warm me and lift my spirits, I just have to wait another minute for the noodles to soften. 

This highly processed food that I would never consider eating if I weren’t 40 miles from the nearest town is the most magical meal I’ve had in as long as I can remember! I drink some of the broth immediately to make eating the noodles with my quilt wrapped around me less dangerous–the last thing I want is more wet gear! As I eat, the worries melt away. I will be warm enough tonight. I have everything I need to survive, in fact, I have even more than that: I have a smartphone with ebooks, audiobooks, and podcasts downloaded! I finish my noodles, it’s only 5 o’clock. I get ready to listen to Haruki Murakami read his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. But first, I gotta pee.

Ah, I don’t wanna go back out there right now.

Well, you gotta, unless you wanna pee in that Gatorade bottle you mix your electrolyte drink in. 

…I’ll go outside.

This is not the first time I’ve had that debate with myself, nor will it be the last, but I really didn’t want to leave the comfort of my warm little ultralight cocoon. I could see from under my tent’s rainfly that whatever mixture of freezing rain that had been falling before was definitely snow now, big wet snowflakes, and I was going to have to at least partially stand in it to pee. The bright side of this situation is that I wasn’t wearing my rain jacket all day so it’s very dry right now. The dark side is, well…I guess I’ll look on the bright side and appreciate the fact that I won’t have to bother pulling my pants down to pee. 

I get on my knees, unzip my tent’s bug net, then the rainfly, and quickly stand up on my good leg. I hop out of my tent, literally, and zip the rainfly as quickly as possible to keep it dry as dry as possible.

There I was, standing on one leg, wearing a rain jacket and sleeveless hawaiian shirt, naked from the waist down, peeing on a bush in a snowstorm, 5 miles from the Canadian border. 

I should take some ibuprofen tonight, no I should wait until tomorrow, the swelling will help it heal overnight. 

But it would hurt less tonight. 

We’ll live. 

You’re right, we will. 

Covered in snowflakes bigger than my thumbnail, I attempt to hop back to my tent, fail, and I am forced to use the toes attached to my bad ankle to stop myself from falling into a slush puddle. It hurts, but I’m used to that after all I’ve been through today. I make it into my tent with the rainfly zipped up and dry myself with my 6 by 6 inch square “towel.” I curl up under my quilt and wrap it around me tightly. 

It’s 6 p.m., nothing to do but listen to that audiobook and stare at my camouflage tent ceiling. I pop in an earphone and press play. I lay there and listen, thinking about the warm dry places I’d rather be in that moment. In my other ear I hear the rumble of a rock slide. 

Or is that snow falling? 

Nah, it sounds more like rock. 

Good thing I’m not over there anymore. 

Five miles to the Canadian border, then I can start walking back the way I came, if I can even walk tomorrow. 

Let’s not worry about that now, we now must hope that rest truly does heal, and quickly.

Like, 12 hours quickly. 

Looking back on all this, I know in that moment, in that soggy tent far from everything except the Pacific Crest Trail and the wilderness it bisects, that is where I needed to be. I was cold, wet, and miserable. But I had a real purpose–surviving this ridiculous situation got myself into intentionally. I chose this. Now I had something to fill my life with that goes much farther than a warm dry bed every night. Don’t get me wrong, I love a warm bed, but my bed gets a little too warm sometimes. 

In the last conversation I ever had with my father before he died, he told me he hoped I found a purpose. After that conversation I really started to wonder what my purpose was. I don’t know if he ever really felt like he had one other than the traditional providing for one’s family. He worked a lot, at a job that seemed to make his life pretty miserable. Is that what he was hoping for me? I don’t think so, but sleeping in a went tent covered in snow 50 miles from civilization with a horribly sprained ankle probably wasn’t exactly what he had in mind either. 

Well, dad, I feel more alive now than I ever have. 

In that moment, in that tent on the side of a mountain, I started to realize something more cogently than I had in the first 32 years of my life: life is empty and meaningless, until you fill it with something. 

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