Usually, when I’m hiking between towns I think about what stands out that I want to write about. Sometimes it’s the terrain or the day-by-day play. Sometimes a specific moment or encounter sticks out. The terrain on this stretch of trail was insanely beautiful but also extremely bad with overgrown brush, downed trees, rocks and roots, swarms of mosquitoes, and uneven trail. It felt like each day was a repeat of misery until I got above the trees and was rewarded with good views. On top of it all, I have had pretty bad pain in my lower shin/almost top of the ankle area. Despite these trial conditions or minor injury that would be easy to talk about, something else stood out to me. You can never let yourself get too confident in the mountains.
After hiking through a chunk of the Sierra and expanding my skills in snow, I was feeling pretty confident heading into Washington. I also heard that Washington had a pretty average snow year and a warm spring causing the majority of the snow to melt on trail. I decided to keep my micro-spikes for a while just in case I came across more snow than I expected, but I was sure the conditions wouldn’t be as bad as the stretch from Kennedy Meadows to Bishop, California. The trail from Harts Pass to the border back to Stehekin, Washington was almost entirely snow free except for a couple of patches. I thought about sending my spikes home after this stretch, but I decided to keep them because I heard that there may still be some snow ahead.
There was significantly more snow in the last stretch of trail compared to the first stretch of Washington. I will admit it was nothing compared to what I had already experienced, but I did learn a valuable lesson on day three of this stretch.
On day three I began with a descent from camp and then a pretty big climb up Fire Creek Pass. I use an app that has an offline map for the trail and comments from other hikers for certain points called “FarOut”. There were several comments about Fire Creek Pass saying it was scary, icy, dangerous, and other hikers had to turn back. I was feeling pretty confident about what I was able to do in the Sierra, so I didn’t worry too much about it. On the climb up I started across a snow patch over what appeared to be the trail. Suddenly after a couple of steps on the snow, it gave out below me and I fell into a creek below. Luckily it was shallow and only about ankle deep. It was a pretty scary moment and my first thought was “Oh crap how far down am I falling?” I stood up and collected myself while trying to let my heart rate settle down. I backtracked to dry trail and made a wide detour around the snow patch so I didn’t fall again. While I continued up the climb I thought about falling into the creek and how it could have been worse if it was deeper water. This was my first moment of realization that I need to stay mindful of the conditions even if they don’t look as bad as what I have done before.
When I made it to the final part of the climb across the pass I saw the snowy patch that people had been describing as “scary” and “dangerous”. I assessed the situation and decided that it looked doable without spikes. The boot pack across the snow was relatively flat and the actual snow patch was about 15-20 feet. To be fair, it had been a week of 90-degree weather and full sun since they wrote the comments, so a lot of the snow could have melted. I also have the perspective of someone that had done worse. I continued down the other side feeling even more confident that Washington would definitely be better than the Sierra.
I stopped for a lunch break around noon to take time to dry out some gear in the sun. I had done about 12 miles which was pretty good considering the climb up Fire Creek Pass and a 7:15 am start time. I also like to use my lunch break as a time to look ahead for the afternoon and figure out where I want to stop for the day. I found what looked like a pretty good campsite 15 miles ahead. It would be a big afternoon and there would be another big climb just before camp, but I figured as long as I popped some ibuprofen my shin would hopefully hold up. I packed up and began hiking. There were many downed trees again and some overgrown sections of trail. I eventually got to a river called the “Kennedy River”. It appeared to be fairly deep and flowing pretty heavily. At this point, I had been hiking by myself for most of the day. I walked upstream hoping to find a narrow spot to cross. I’ll admit I was starting to get a little freaked out. I found the calmest spot I could find once I decided I had to get myself to cross. I tested the water depth with my trekking poles and realized it would only be able mid-shin deep. I crossed, and even though my shoes and socks were soaked, I felt a boost of confidence again.
After this crossing the trail began to really start going up. I finally got out of the trees and I could see the top of the next climb. There was quite a bit of snow, but I was still feeling pretty confident after the climb earlier in the day. Suddenly I heard and saw a helicopter coming towards the other side of the climb. My heart sank as I realized there would be no reason for any helicopter to be in this remote area other than to rescue someone. I watched the helicopter lower below my eyesight on the other side. I hoped that maybe it was going somewhere else, but I could still hear it while I climbed up the pass. It was a really ominous feeling.
The pass was actually dry at the top and I had an amazing view of the snowy valley I had just climbed as well as Mount Rainier in the distance. Shortly after the top, there was a long stretch of snow. It looked pretty flat at first, so I began across without thinking about putting my spikes on. I also assumed someone wouldn’t have fallen here because it didn’t look like a spot you would really end up falling on and I didn’t see the helicopter anymore. I also noticed a group of three people sitting on the other side of the snow and I shouted across to them.
“Was that helicopter for you guys?”
A girl on the other side shouted back in a voice I recognized. “No, but it was for another hiker I was with…BAG is that you?!”
Iris from Germany, who I hadn’t seen in a long time was waiting on the other side of the snow! She encouraged me to stop and put my spikes on because there was a section that got a bit steep. I turned around, put my spikes on, and made it across the snow safely. Again, I didn’t think this snow was as bad as some of the other stuff I had done. Given the fact that I had just seen a rescue helicopter and the patch did end up getting a bit steep on the far side, I was so glad that Iris took the moment to tell me to put my spikes on. I was going to cross the snow without them because the first part didn’t look bad, and because I had felt pretty confident. I am glad I put them on just to be safe.
When I reached the other side Iris and I hugged. It was so good to see her after all this time even though the conditions that led us to meet up again were scary. Earlier that afternoon, around 3 pm, Iris and a few others were crossing the snowy patch. An older gentleman she was with slipped on the snow and ended up sliding all the way down hitting his head on some rocks. The other people pulled him back up and pressed SOS. Iris said that the guy was conscious but very bloody. I saw the helicopter around 6:30pm that was rescuing him. I don’t know if the guy had micro-spikes on or if he had an ice axe. I also don’t know what kind of experience he had in the snow. I do know that he slipped on the snow, which I’m sure he wasn’t planning on doing. That could have easily happened to me even though I was feeling confident. I am so thankful that Iris was there to remind me to put on my spikes. I had mentioned in a post early on that Iris is kind of like a motherly figure and in that moment she was looking out for me. I probably would have made it across the snow fine without my spikes, but that’s something I don’t want to find out. It was a good lesson to always play it safe and never be too confident.
I feel so bad for the gentleman that fell. I can’t imagine the fear that was going through his mind in that moment or the fear that went through his loved ones' minds when they were contacted by search and rescue. I am so glad that he was at least conscious and I hope he makes a quick recovery.
After this moment I forgot about everything else. The annoying downed trees and overgrown brush didn’t matter. I felt humbled by the moment and I took a good look at my mindset. I know that I have gained a lot of experience in the last few weeks and I’m glad that I have a lot more confidence. I am also so glad that this moment made me realize that I was possibly getting too confident. The mountains don’t care how confident you are. The trail doesn’t care what experience you have. You have to stay humble and respect the conditions.