A SOBO learns how hard it really is

In the middle of the most challenging experience of my southbound thru-hike, I found a sock.

It was a wool hiking sock with a safety pin poked through the toe, stuck to a bush hanging over the trail near Milk Creek in the middle of Glacier Peak Wilderness. The sock had probably been ripped from someone’s pack by overgrown bushes on either side of the trail. I was surprised the bushes didn’t take the whole backpack. My dream of thru-hiking the PCT seemed impossible as I struggled through Glacier Peak. I was beaten down, hungry and injured. I didn’t know if I could go on after the next town—or even make it there—but at least I could try to return this sock to its owner.

Southbound PCT thru-hikers at the famous Stehekin Pastry Company.

Southbound PCT thru-hikers at the famous Stehekin Pastry Company.

I had started my hike only 10 days before, on July 6th. Hiking from Harts Pass to the U.S./Canada border and back had been tough, but south of Harts Pass the trail had gotten easier and I felt strong and confident. By the time I reached the heaven-like trail town of Stehekin, the dangers of the trail melted away in a haze of cinnamon rolls and day-old baked goods. Plus in Stehekin, I had a chance encounter with trail legend Scott Williamson, and my mind was buzzing with all of his trail wisdom. I was so anxious to start hiking again that I left the group I’d just met and took the shuttle alone back to the trail. Someone had mentioned offhand that the section coming up was one of the worst on the entire PCT. Lots of rumors were flying around so I didn’t take the warnings very seriously. I’d also hiked the Oregon PCT section NOBO in 2015 and considered myself a bit of a trail expert.

Delicious treats before the grueling and scary Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Delicious treats before the grueling and scary Glacier Peak Wilderness.

In fact, I was walking blindly into a monster.

In the 107 miles south on the PCT from High Bridge Ranger Station (Stehekin) to Steven’s Pass, the total elevation change is +29,000/-27,000 feet. In the 107 miles between the Bear Ridge Trail junction near Vermillion Valley Resort south to where the PCT and JMT meet south of Forester Pass, the total elevation change is +22,000/-21,000 feet. Like most hikers I’d spent 90% of my research and preparation focused on gear, and had no idea I was about to enter a section with more elevation changes than the steepest parts of the PCT in the Sierra.

Entering Glacier Peak Wilderness with blue skies and high spirits.

Entering Glacier Peak Wilderness with blue skies and high spirits.

At first I was having a merry time. Huckleberries were ripe and delicious and I stopped often to sample. After about five miles, I realized that my left knee, which had felt better in town, was still in bad shape. It really hurt on downhills and sharply slowed my pace. Then all of a sudden the trail became overgrown and poorly maintained, compounding the injury. Around the 10-mile mark it started to rain, and soon everything was socked-in. When the rain stopped the moisture on bushes and small trees sopped my feet, pack, and clothes. Even worse, as I made camp I realized I’d miscalculated the length of the section and therefore hadn’t packed enough food.

This is a very remote area and there was a lot of blowdown.

This is a very remote area and there was a lot of blowdown.

That night I wrote in my journal.

“F*** f*** f***. I really put myself in a bad spot here. First – left knee is in horrible shape. I’m taking downhills around 1 mph. Started hurting on the descent into North Cascades NP a few days ago. Super bad. Second – I’m short on food. I’ve got 3 days and 3 nights of food for 90 miles. Third – water purifying drops are running short. Shit. To make it [to Steven’s Pass] I’d need 25/25/25/15 over tough terrain with a bum knee. Shit. “

After writing that I sat in my tent in silence. The night before I’d been feeling great and sipping a beer with my new hiker buddies at the Stehekin Lodge.

How could things change so quickly?

I was only 18 miles away from Stehekin, how could things change so quickly? Should I turn around? If I go back will I quit? What would my family and friends think of me if I only made it 100 miles on the PCT?

The trail junction at the Suiattle River.

The trail junction at the Suiattle River.

After thinking over my options, I decided that unless my knee got worse the next day, I couldn’t turn back. I told myself that I’d walk five miles south in the morning, then reevaluate how I felt. I split my food into four separate bags, allowing myself to only eat whatever was in each bag for each day.

My camp four miles north of Milk Creek.

My camp four miles north of Milk Creek.

The next morning I woke up at dawn, ate half of a pop tart, packed up, and starting walking. My knee felt a little better. At 10 miles, I treated myself to an entire Snickers Bar. Now 30 miles south of Stehekin, it seemed that the only possible way to go was forward.

I should have asked for food.

It was on the morning of the third day that I found the sock. A few miles later I encountered four SOBOs at Milk Creek. I should’ve asked for food, but I was too proud and didn’t want to impose. Instead I asked: “Is this someone’s sock?” They shook their heads no, but said there was another hiker only a few miles ahead. I caught up to him at Mica Lake. “Hey man, is this your sock?” He shrugged, and said the nearest group was more than a day ahead. I pushed on, following the PCT as it climbed 7,500 feet and descended 8,500 feet over 23 grueling miles. It was my hardest day of my thru-hike, and I quickly forgot about the sock.

Looking back north, this picture shows the switchbacks down to Milk Creek

Looking north, the switchbacks down to Milk Creek

“I’m really tired and I was focusing really hard on not falling.”

The next day I crossed a steep stretch of snow-covered trail between Red and White Pass. With only my trail-running shoes and trekking poles, I kicked steps and slowly picked my way across the dangerous snowfield. A couple miles later, I met two NOBO section hikers. They asked about the upcoming crossing which they heard was pretty bad. I answered, “I don’t remember. I’m really tired and I was focusing really hard on not falling. I just remember it being really bad.” I hiked on, only later thinking that I’d probably left them bewildered and shocked, worried about their own safety as well as my own.

Snow and clouds coming over Fire Creek Pass. I didn't take any pictures of the snow between Red and White Pass because I was terrified!

Snow and clouds coming over Fire Creek Pass. I didn’t take any pictures of the snow between Red and White Pass because I was terrified!

Five miles after that crossing, I reached the southern boundary of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. I flipped off the boundary sign as I walked by. I felt like a shell of myself, hungry and exhausted. I’d had enough of this stupid section. A second after doing that I spun around, apologized to the sign, and turned my middle finger to face myself. It wasn’t the wilderness’ fault that I’d been unprepared, it was mine.

On the final day, a section hiker offered me a place to rest at his home in Leavenworth, Washington. His son had done the PCT southbound in 2015 and he wanted to help hikers the same way others had helped his son. I eagerly accepted his hospitality. I certainly enjoyed some delicious home-cooked food.

Yep Yep and his wife, the trail angels that put me up in Leavenworth, WA.

Yep Yep and his wife, the trail angels who put me up in Leavenworth, WA.

The next morning, I was downstairs getting my clothes from the dryer when I heard the man lament to his wife: “I loved hiking that section, but somewhere out there I lost a sock.” I walked upstairs holding the wool sock I’d found in Glacier Peak. It was his.

A southbound thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail is an outstanding experience and an immense challenge. If there is still snow on the ground, it is a serious danger you should not underestimate. It’s not a place for those inexperienced with traveling across steep snowfields. Substantial backcountry expertise, avalanche awareness, partners, good equipment, plans and physical fitness are necessary. Read more in our guide to southbound thru-hiking the PCT.

Inspired by his own lack of preparation, the dangers of Northern Washington, and other ‘16 SOBOs asking for more resources, Kurt (Happy Feet) created a website called PCT Southbound to better prepare southbounders for the rigors of the trail. It focuses a great deal on the challenges of starting in Northern Washington. Going southbound or know someone who is? Please share this link: www.pctsouthbound.com

 

Author: Guest Blogger

We're publishing your stories, perspectives and contributions on the PCTA blog. Read on!

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton