Today's miles: 7
Total miles: 2607
The hotel we stayed in last night had two beds, which meant Sunshine offered to sleep on the floor. He made himself a fort with all the extra throw pillows and his inflatable mattress, and apparently slept really well.
I woke up this morning to hear him crying out, "Brambles! Brambles, wait for it...."
And he unscrewed the valve on his air mattress so that it hissed loudly as the air rushed out.
I laughed, because this was a running inside joke on trail. In the mornings, when we knew it was time to get up, all of us hid in our tents, pretending to still be asleep. It wasn't until the first brave person sighed and dramatically let the air out of their sleeping pad that the rest of us followed suit. Each morning the stillness was broken by one deflating air pad, followed quickly by a cacophony of hissing air - our own backcountry alarm clock.
We quickly got ready, enjoyed some pastries from the next door bakery, and hit the road for Rainy Pass. I read the weather report on my phone and checked in on the PCT Facebook page for updates. My friends were still wildly trying to find ways north. We were the first group attempting to leave from Rainy Pass. I noticed that some of my other friends back home were ranting on Facebook about a "government shutdown." Having been disconnected from the world from five months, I had no idea what this entailed, but I assumed that if I was this far removed from society, it wouldn't affect me much. At any rate, the weather report looked promising.
Wocka, Giddyup, Sneaks and Kazu were already at the trailhead, having caught a hitch earlier this morning. Apparently Toots, Tears, Lighthouse, Cuddles, Fun Size and the rest of their group had just left and were a few minutes in front of us down the trail. Aloha and another hiker named LionHeart were still there, so we stood in the parking lot for a bit, hugging each other and saying goodbye to my family. My mom, sister and Tanner would drive to my aunt's house to stay a few days while I finished the trail; she lived only a few hours from here and it would be easier than going back to Portland.
My mom took photos as we strapped on our gear, our packs, and our winter clothes, and headed into the unknown.
Courtney, Mom, Bramble, Tanner
Left to right: LionHeart, Bramble, Sunshine, Sneaks, Giddyup, Wocka, Kazu
The first few miles were lovely. We had been anxious about the weather, but it was proving to be perfect so far. No new snow, blue skies, cool temperatures. We forded several strong rivers and we squealed in delight at the novelty of waterproof boots. It was like having a super power - we can walk through water and not get wet!!
Having spent five months in mesh trail runners, this was magic.
As we gained elevation from Rainy Pass, more and more snow covered the trail. I loved it. The views were spectacular, and Wocka, Giddyup, Sunshine and I were like giddy school children, dancing through the snow and laughing up at the blue sky.
We're back on the PCT! It's heaven out here!
We marveled at the gorgeous mountain tops, the huge, hanging icicles, the white powdery clouds on the bluebird sky. I couldn't imagine this trail being any more beautiful on a day when there wasn't snow. For a moment I felt lucky that the storm hit and we were able to see the trail like this.
"Do you think walking through snow will get old at some point?" Sunshine asked me.
"Probably," I said. "But it hasn't yet!"
The PCT was marvelous today. I was so thrilled to be out here, and headed for the border, and I just knew this day was going to be great.
The crew ahead of us was doing a good job marking the trail for us. We followed their footsteps, and it became more and more critical to navigate as the snow grew deeper and deeper. We made a pact together to stay safe in this terrain: you must always be able to see the hiker ahead of you, and behind you. So far we had been doing a good job of sticking together.
When the snow became two feet deep, I was finding that postholing into the footsteps was becoming more difficult. Our pace slowed as the snow deepened. Sunshine and I decided to try wearing snowshoes, to see if it would speed our progress. But the snowshoes were too wide for the narrow trail that the others had cut, so after a frustrating mile in them, still sinking to our kneecaps, we took them off again.
As we grew closer to 6,000 feet, the footsteps grew ever deeper and it began to lightly snow. We crested the top of our climb at Cutthroat Pass, where a gorgeous view lay before us. The snow here was so deep it had almost buried our PCT sign, and the only way we knew where to go was due to Toots and Tears' group breaking trail ahead of us.
The trail meandered along the mountain ridge on a steep angle. Our trail was now three feet deep in snow in some places, and difficult to trace. I had to carefully place each footstep directly in the ones already ahead of me. If I strayed even a little bit, my foot sunk into the snow and I found myself buried up to my waist. Sunshine and I had fallen behind Wocka and Giddyup, and Sunshine was falling even further behind me. I paused to wait for him, admiring the view. It was very slow going, but I was still determined and felt good about the day, as a whole. I looked out at the snow and had an amusing thought: how will I go to the bathroom? It would be tricky to dig through this much snow just to find frozen earth to dig into. I was glad for the moment that it wasn't an issue.
Sunshine caught up to me after quite some time, his face twisted in pain as he limped along.
"What's wrong?" I asked, worried.
"My legs are cramping," he gasped. "They haven't cramped this bad since Kennedy Meadows... I don't know what's bringing it on again."
He looked like he could barely walk.
"It's the muscle?" I asked, "like your calves?"
"Yeah," Sunshine gasped, and then suddenly dropped his pack and lay himself down on his back in a white pile of snow. "Help me, Brambles."
He stuck his legs in the air and I helped him massage the muscles on his legs while he cried out in pain.
"Have you tried putting snow on them?" I suggested, nervously. "When I get muscle cramps, ice usually helps them release."
Sunshine rolled up his rainpants and we shoveled handfuls of snow onto his calves. It seemed to help a little, and soon he was struggling back to his feet and putting his pack back on.
"Okay," he sighed. "I'm going to move really slowly, so sorry in advance."
"Don't be sorry," I said, "I'm not going to leave you. We were supposed to all stick together, at any rate. If I start getting too far ahead, you yell at me, okay?"
"Okay," he agreed.
And so we continued forward, carefully picking our way along the snowy mountain traverse. I remembered notes from my maps and my friend Wes telling me that the last fifty miles of trail was all ridge-walking, very exposed and very high in elevation. This was what our trail would be like for the next few days... very snowy, very cold and very steep. I idly wondered what the avalanche danger was this time of year.
It began to snow harder. The blue sky was trying desperately to peek through the clouds, but the gray seemed to be slowly taking over. I could see Wocka and Giddyup far ahead on the trail, and I did my best to keep up, but the trail was icy and every few steps I fell in snow up to my waist and had to dig myself out again. I had to be careful not to take a wrong step and slip down the mountain.
I didn't want to check my watch but I knew our pace had fallen drastically - we were moving at a mile an hour, if that, and afternoon was already upon us. I planted my trekking poles for stability but they disappeared into the snow without anything to anchor them. Sunshine was falling farther behind, so I kept pausing to wait, but the cold was biting through my jacket. I knew the only way to get through tonight's chill would be to drop below 5,000 feet. We would have to walk fifteen miles from the trailhead, and currently we had only made it six.
As I walked, I placed my feet carefully and continually brushed falling snow off my shoulders. Suddenly a dark shape appeared in front of me, walking in my direction. I hesitated, wondering if this was a southbounder or someone turning around. The trail was narrow and steep and I wasn't sure how to safely get out of the way.
It turned out to be Fun Size. He stopped in front of me and said, "Hey."
"Hey," I replied. "Weren't you ahead of us? With Toots and Tears?"
"Yeah," he agreed. "Here's the scoop: we've been postholing a new trail all morning through the snow, and now that it's gotten so deep, our pace has really dropped. We've been doing less than a mile an hour, if that. We keep switching who's in front so that no one gets too exhausted, but it has just gotten too hard to keep up."
"I appreciate you guys breaking trail," I said, "it has made it so much easier for us."
Fun Size waved away my thanks. "It's not that," he said, "we just can't keep going like this. The snow is getting too deep and it's getting harder to tell where the trail should be without a good GPS. You can see the rest of them up ahead... there's a big wall of snow we ran into. Over four feet deep. We all stopped to talk and realized that it's going to take us all day to get off this mountain ridge. It's getting later in the afternoon and we've only gone seven miles. If we keep up this pace all the way to the border, it'll take us a week. We just don't have the food for that."
"Oh," I said, letting this sink in, slowly.
"Don't let me make a decision for you," Fun Size said, "you're welcome to make your own choices. I'm just telling you what we've figured out. It's hard work breaking trail, harder than we realized, and I'm not up for fifty miles of that."
"Is everyone turning back?" I asked.
"Most of them, I think," Fun Size said. "But don't take my word for it. You can talk to them, if you want. They're up ahead a bit."
With that, he pushed past me, headed back down the mountain.
I stood stunned for a few minutes, letting this information soak in. It had been hard hiking, yes, but I didn't feel ready to give up, yet. But then again, I hadn't been the one breaking trail all morning. I had been walking in other's footsteps, and even when the trail was hard, at least I could follow it. Now I stood in the middle of a snowstorm, the sky so white that I could barely see two feet in front of me. What if the weather got worse?
Part of me wished we had waited a few more days, until someone else broke the trail to the border, so all we had to do was follow in good weather. But was that selfish of me?
I slowly caught up to the rest of the group. They were standing in a solemn huddle, ignoring the piles of snow gathering on their shoulders and hoods. I could tell some of them had been crying by the presence of icicles on their eyelashes.
Ahead I could see the wall of snow Fun Size had been referring to - I could barely see around it, it was so tall. And beyond that, snow and mountains as far as the eye could see. And no trail. It was completely blanketed in white.
"We did our best," I heard Toots say brokenly. "I said I was going to hike until I physically couldn't anymore, until the trail stopped me, and I think this is my sign. It'll take too long at this rate to reach the border. We'll have to find another way."
And she, too, turned back. Her group followed slowly, sadly, until all that was left was Wocka, Giddyup, Sneaks, Kazu and me. Sunshine was still making his way to us. I could see him stopped to talk to Fun Size.
Giddyup, Wocka and Sneaks were standing still, looking both determined and broken. Sneaks was having a fervent, under-the-breath conversation with them, trying to talk them into not quitting.
"We can do this," he insisted. "I know we can. It's just the group mentality that when one person gets fed up, everyone gets fed up and quits at once. But I've been breaking trail with them all morning. Yes, it can be hard, yes, the snow is deep, but it's not impossible. I don't mind breaking trail since I'm the tallest. The only tricky part will be finding the trail, but usually you can see an indentation in the snow, so it's not too hard to follow."
Wocka and Giddyup were silently listening, not saying anything in response. Wocka's cheeks were streaked with tears. She had already been fighting this battle. She didn't think it was safe to keep going, but she also didn't want to quit. Giddyup was staring at his feet, unwilling to take sides between his best friend and his fiancee. I watched their emotional war sadly, knowing the fate of our hike rested on a decision. But the truth was, I was torn, too. I didn't want to quit, but the thought of postholing through fifty miles of four foot snow made me exhausted just thinking about it. What was it Sunshine had said earlier?
Will we ever be tired of the snow?
Eventually Wocka said, "I don't want to quit, I don't. But I've also camped in this kind of weather before. I know it can get dangerous. I know it's not the smart choice to keep going. I don't want to put us in danger, but I also don't want to be the reason no one reaches the border."
The choice was killing her. Giddyup could see that, and so he put an arm around her, and together they made the life-altering decision to turn back from their dreams. Slowly they turned, slowly they began walking back.
Sneaks' shoulders sagged with defeat, though his face remained determinedly resolute. He followed, but he promised aloud to the sky, "I won't hike it alone, but just so you know, the next group that attempts the trail, I'll be going with them."
I followed slowly in their wake, turning back the way we had come. I glanced over my shoulder, out at the miles of white spread behind us, into the mountains. I felt my heart breaking at leaving the trail behind. I felt the last of my journey melt like snowflakes, my dream buried in snow. Sometimes the smartest choices aren't the easiest ones.
We caught up to Sunshine, who had been briefed on the turn of events and was waiting quietly for our return. He said heavily,
"I know no one wants to quit, but to be honest, I don't know that I could have made it. My legs have been cramping all day and I can barely walk another mile, much less fifty. I would have turned back anyway."
For a moment he was silent, and then said, quietly, "all I wanted was a frozen beard picture next to the monument."
We didn't reply. No one knew what to say. No words could have made this situation any better. We walked in silence back across the mountain traverse. My feet felt oddly heavy and everything about this felt wrong - as if my body could tell I was walking in the wrong direction. For the first time in 2,600 miles, I was walking southbound.
The journey home was less joyous. I tried to come to terms with our decision, telling myself, at least your last day on trail was a good one. Though the snowy landscape was keeping us from our ultimate goal, I couldn't deny the stunning beauty of it.
When finally we dropped to a low enough elevation, the snow began to slowly disappear. I knew we had only gotten as far as we did today because the first four or five miles had been through relatively little snow. It had taken us almost three hours to cover the last two miles, and I knew that was a pace we could have never sustained. But still, it was hard not to want to run back up to Cutthroat Pass and try again, just one more time...
But my feet were aching in boots that I hadn't broken in; I was limping along the trail. My body was cold with the chill of snow, my pack was heavy with the weight of extra gear. The last miles of the PCT were supposedly some of the hardest, fraught with washouts, steep terrain, exposed ridgelines, and high altitude - things that were exponentially harder in snow. As much as I hated it, I knew we had made the right decision.
It was evening by the time we covered the final mile and found ourselves back where we started: Rainy Pass. The thought of a pit toilet at the trailhead kept me going the last little bit, but when I arrived and tried to open the door, I noticed a sign posted on it: "This facility has been closed due to the government shutdown." I was startled, because I was positive it had been open this morning.
The shutdown closes park toilets?
Something in me said this wasn't a good sign.
There was a group of hikers camped at the trailhead, ready to hike out in the morning. We told them our story, explained why we had turned around, and gave them our best advice. Despite that we had turned back, many of them didn't want to quit until they had tried the trail themselves. This was thru-hiker determination. You walk north until you can't anymore.
Wocka, Giddyup, Sneaks, Sunshine, Kazu and I made our way to the highway to catch a hitch back to Winthrop where we could make plans for the next few days.
"Hey," Wocka noted as we stood on the bleak road with our thumbs out, "it's October first. This was supposed to be the day we reached the border. I guess it turned out to be our last day on trail, after all."
We were silent, letting that sink in.
Fortunately, we didn't have to wait very long for a hitch. Two locals from Winthrop drove by and took us to town. We got a hotel suite together and spent the evening having dinner and discussing our options. Sneaks was going to head back up to the trail tomorrow with the group that was camped at Rainy Pass. Wocka and Giddyup decided they weren't finished with the trail - they were going to road walk twenty miles to the Ross Lake trail, which was at a lower elevation and ran to the Canadian border. They wouldn't get to see the PCT monument, but at least they could tell themselves that they walked to Canada. Toots and Tears' group was going to take this route, too, and Sunshine decided to join them.
I decided not to. It was a hard choice, but I was emotionally and physically drained after such a long day and in my heart I knew that road walking to Canada just wouldn't be the same as walking the PCT to the border. I knew I could just drive to the border and walk eight miles to the monument, but it wouldn't have the same meaning. If I wasn't going to come around that bend and see the monument in the clearing after walking there on the trail, then it wasn't worth it. I wanted to see the monument so badly, but I also knew it was time for me to say goodbye.
We went to sleep that night drugged by the emotions of the day. We did our best. We walked so far. We would try again some other day. And even knowing we had done what we could, we still fell asleep with pillows stained by tears.