Day 8 and 9: The Night I Got Trapped on a Mountain

September 18th-19th; 20 miles and 30 miles

Double Check and Cloudbuster got a bit of a head start on me out of the Abbey, but I caught up to them after not too long. Even though it was still raining and it didn’t take too long to get wet again, we were all feeling pretty good after our stop. We were about 64 miles out of the next town stop, and, given all of this, the two of them started talking about a big day day the next day to get to town (40+ depending on how many miles we did the first day). We managed to get 20 in, not bad for a 1pm start.

Unfortunately, with the rain not letting up at all, we weren’t quite able to make the pace the next day that we needed for a 44 mile day. Constant rain can play a big part in the hike, not least of all on your morale. So it became clear around lunch, when we’d only done about 17 miles, that we weren’t going to make it. Even so, looking at possible camp spots, we could do a 33 making the next day into town pretty easy.

By 4 o’clock, we had about 12 miles left, which, at our typical 3mph pace, would put us in camp right after dark at about 8. The only thing was that it looked like there were a couple big climbs coming up. First we would have to go up to about 6,500 ft, back down to 5,400 ft, and then one more big climb to 7,040 ft, the highest point on the PCT in Washington.

We got down from the first climb around 6 o’clock. In hindsight, this is probably where we should’ve stopped for the night, but we pushed on instead, not at all expecting what we had up ahead, in what would turn out to be the craziest and scariest night of my life.

The climb was not at all easy, and before not too long I had lost sight of the other two, more seasoned hikers ahead. In less than a mile, the trail went above treeline as we started to traverse an exposed ridge. At the same time, the weather was worsening, with the temperature dropping as the sun began to set, the wind picking up, and the fog slowly getting thicker and thicker.

The last time I saw anyone was right before a short crossing of large snow patch that the tral crossed. I heard someone call my name, looked up through my hood, and vaguely saw the shape of Cloudbuster indicating to me where the trail was. I yelled back, acknowledging that i heard him (the sound of our voices easily being picked up by the wind now), and he turned around to keep going, within minutes disappearing into the fog.

What’s usually nice about ridge walking like this is that you can usually guess where the trail is taking you because it’s so exposed, but with such low visibility, this wasn’t possible. So each time I thought I’d made it to the top, a new crest would show up on the otherside of the climb.

Finally, after a trail junction that gave a path for hikers and one for stock, the trail eventually climbed up to a sign that simply said “Pacific Crest Trail” (very anticlimactic) and it looked like it would start going down. It was almost dark at this point however, and I was closing in on 30 miles for the day. In my exhaustion, my foot and hiking pole caught a bad spot on the rocks and I took a head over heels fall. With a steep drop-off to the side of me, I took a second to gather my senses and take a deep breath before moving on.

With the fog really thick now, and the rain coming down hard, I was barely able to see anything, even having to take off my glasses, becoming so fogged up and covered in rain that they were more of a burden then a help. So I put them away and took out my headlamp to help me out a little. The only problem (as anyone who’s driven in weather like this knows), the light in some ways actually makes it harder to see because it reflects off the water vapor in the mist. But without my glasses, I needed the light to see. All of this combined to reduce my visibility to literally the footstep in front of me.

This caused several worries for me at the time. First, as I was crossing an area known as “Knives Edge,” there were large areas with what might have been 100+ foot drop offs on either side, with huge gusts of wind coming from my left. Because I couldn’t see, there were several times where I would take a step forward and my foot would simply slip down into nothing. Luckily I was able to catch myself with my hiking pole in time before the rest of my body could follow after. While this was happening, it was all I could do to not look out into the shadows out in the rain to the side and far below me, as the vertigo this would induce was almost overwhelming.

The other problem was that because this was in such an open and exposed area, there was not much distinguishing the trail from the rest of the desolate, alpine landscape. There were a couple of times when I would walk and realize all of a sudden that I was no longer on a trail. So I would have to retrace my steps until it looked like I was back on trail, turn back, and try again. Sometimes I would even have to repeat this several times before I actually found it again.

With all this going on, there was quite a bit going through my head. This was the kind of situation that you hear about as a warning to hikers, or see in a movie, or read about in a book, but never think you’d ever be in. I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” as I started to run survival scenarios through my head. It was becoming clear to me that there was a good chance that I wouldn’t be able to make it off this mountain side that night. An option that I didn’t want to have to face, but started thinking about, was having to hunker down behind a rock and get into my sleeping bag for the night until the sun came up and I would be able to see clearer again.

When my hiking pole hit the first bit of vegetation that I had seen in maybe an hour, I got really excited. This meant that the terrain would start to flatten out slightly and trees would even start making appearance soon. The only problem was that with flatter terrain, it was harder to keep track of the trail, and with all of the rain, it was getting flooded in places. This made it really hard to differentiate between trail and actual creeks. It was this that did me in for the night.

After a rock hop across a creek, I just could not find the trail. I wandered around for about 10 minutes, back-tracking several times, but never able to refind what I knew to be trail. So, freezing cold and everything soaked completely through, I slowly came to the realization that I would have to find a place to make camp for the night. Luckily, I could see an elevated grove of trees up ahead and made my way towards them. When I got there, I walked around, patting with my feet to find somewhere flat to lay my tent down. Since this was not a place for camping, there was no bare ground, so I was going to have to set up on the 6 inch deep shrubbery that made up the floor of the grove, but I eventually found a flat place just wide enough between two trees to set up my tent.

So with the rain still coming down and the wind blowing, I quickly set up. Not worrying about getting things wet at this point, I jumped in the tent, quickly took off my rain gear, and threw on my thermals. I then got out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag and crawled in, taking a few handfuls of granola from my food bag as my dinner for the night before laying down to sleep.

This was not a restful sleep by any means. Even though everything was wet, my synthetic sleeping bag was able to keep me relatively warm. I soon dozed off, dreaming about how I was actually camped near a rural road with a few houses with people that could help me out. Not too long into this rather pleasant dream, I was woken up by a huge gust of wind that was coming from east (my left side) that blew the side of my tent almost 45 degrees down right towards me. I then spent maybe an hour throwing up a hand to support the tent from the inside everytime I heard an approaching gust through the trees, praying that at least my tent would not collapse on me in the middle of the night, as with the wind and the rain there were already rather large puddles forming around me.

Soon though, the exhaustion was starting to set in as I thought to myself, that even if my tent did break and collapse, I needed to get some sleep. So I gave up throwing up my arm and tried my best to throw the gusts of wind out of my mind, eventually falling back asleep to thoughts of being in a friendly, country neighborhood, as I lay there in all of my wet gear, in a tent being constantly buffeted by the wind, in a tree grove, up above 6,000 ft.

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