Almost Quitting on a Rough Day in Eastern Washington
I left White Pass and headed into Goat Rocks wilderness with clear, cool weather. Within a few hours, things started to get more ominous: a bank of dark clouds moved in, obscuring the cliffs I was planning to hike and much of the surrounding scenery.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the iconic views that make the Knife’s Edge, one of the most famous sections of the PCT. But I thought going over the high elevation, narrow bit of trail in a misty cloud might be its own unique and beautiful experience. And, I didn’t want to camp early and get behind schedule. So I left my water source at 5 PM and started hiking up into the dark clouds, figuring I still had several hours before dark to make it over the Knife’s Edge.
As the day stretched into evening, the weather got worse. The wind picked up until it was like ocean waves pummeling the beach at high tide, and it was darker than it had any right to be before sunset. I couldn’t see the views from the Knife’s Edge; I honestly couldn’t even see 100 feet ahead of me.
It started raining, but I didn’t feel comfortable stopping on the exposed ridge. So I kept walking, fighting the wind, until I made it down to the first trail junction. I was hungry, wet and cold, and, given the deteriorating weather and the slow pace, I scrapped my plan to hike several more miles. I pulled on my rain pants and decided I’d only go another 0.2 miles to the first listed campsite.
I don’t really know what happened then. It wasn’t like I was jumping or doing anything reckless. But I just somehow slipped or stepped strangely, or a wet rock slid out from under my right foot, because the next thing I knew my right ankle was twisted beneath me.
I registered pain – sharp, 10-out-of-10 pain for an instant, and I remember thinking “did I just break my ankle?” But I stumbled forward and the stab of pain subsided to something intense but bearable.
My right ankle has suffered many, many sprains. Last year in July, I underwent ankle surgery to repair 3 ligaments and add an internal brace to stop the ankle from spraining in the future. I had taken months off of running and undergone months of physical therapy to ensure that my ankle wouldn’t ever sprain again. So on the dark mountainside in the high wind and rain, I scolded my ankle out loud, as if arguing with it would make a difference. “You,” I told it, “are supposed to be three times as strong as a regular ankle.”
I hobbled ahead, afraid to sit down because I wasn’t sure if I’d get back up again. It was only 0.2 miles to the first possible campsite, but that seemed really far with my right ankle sending shooting pain with every step.
And then, because this wasn’t bad enough, I came to a huge, sloping snow field. The ground was already slippery from the rain, but there was no way to get to a campsite without crossing the snow. It took me 15 minutes to slowly pick my way over the snowfield on my bad ankle, and I checked my app and saw I’d only gone 0.1 miles.
I arrived at the listed campsite and saw tents scattered about, shuttered tight against the wind and rain. There were a few sheltered sites, but those all seemed to be taken. And with my bad ankle, I couldn’t do much exploring. There was one tent that was tucked into a circular rock wall that protected it on 3 sides. I set up on the outside of that rock wall — figuring one wall of shelter was better than none.
It was raining and windy as I tried to set up my tent. The ground was so rocky I couldn’t get a single stake in the ground. This was a first for me: at every other campsite on the PCT, I’ve been able to get at least 3 of my 6 stakes in the ground. But instead I had to set up my tent using rocks to hold the stakes in place. It wasn’t a great pitch —that would have taken more time searching for the best rocks, and I was cold and limping too much for that— but by 8 PM I had the tent up enough to crawl in.
I heated water in the vestibule, ate, swallowed a few ibuprofen, and propped my swollen ankle up on my food bag. Already I could see that the joint was ballooning up.
On top of all that, water was intruding on the tent from multiple directions, both because the wind kept switching directions and because of the subpar pitch of my tent. I tried to block some of the rain with a garbage bag I use as a pack liner, but it didn’t work that well. Soon everything —including my down sleeping quilt—was wet.
I finally stretched out in the tent to try to rest and full-body shivers overtook my body. I didn’t know if it was the cold or a reaction to the pain, but I was shaking hard. It took a long time for that to subside enough for me to pull out my map.
My original plan was to average 22 miles per day in this section and arrive in Cascade Locks with 6 nights on the trail. But I already knew that wouldn’t happen on my injured ankle. I needed a new plan. One option was to try to get another 47 miles to a forest service road where it would be possible to hitch down to Trout Lake.
Another option would be to turn around and go 18 miles back to White Pass, including retracing my steps over the Knife’s Edge.
Alone in my tent, ankle throbbing and everything soaked, the tent flapping around like a garbage bag over my head, I considered that this could be the end of my thru hike. After 138 days of hiking, I had no idea whether I could keep moving forward. And if I turned around and went back to White Pass, I could already imagine what would happen next: I’d catch a ride with a trail angel or my partner would drive up to get me, and I’d wake up at home in two days with my ankle in a brace and my thru hike over.
I gave myself 5 minutes to sink into misery and feel sorry for myself. It was the lowest moment of my hike, imagining my own failure. Then I swallowed it back, put away my map and closed my eyes to try to sleep. But with the ankle, the cold, the overwhelming sound of the storm, and everything being wet, I didn’t manage to get to sleep until after 11.
Just after 1 AM, the storm ripped out two stakes and the the tent collapsed on me. I sat up, unzipping the netting, my tent, quilt and all my stuff in a wet, sandy puddle around me. For a moment I didn’t do anything; the thought of trying to shove on rain gear and fix my tent was overwhelming. But what was my alternative? There was no way I could hike out right now in the dark on my bad ankle. And there was no one to save me but myself.
That’s a hard part of doing so much solo backpacking. I love the independence and solitude, but when something goes wrong, I’m on my own. Nobody else is going to come rescue me.
So I got up, struggled into shoes and rain gear, and began fixing my collapsed tent. I knew I needed to do a better job staking it out, so I hunted around for better rocks to provide stability to the stakes facing the brunt of the storm. It took a long time before I felt like it was truly secure and not likely to collapse again.
It was nearly 2 AM when I stretched out to sleep again. I knew sleep would be next to impossible with the wind and storm, so I just stared up at the flapping tent in the dark. And that’s when I realized: I had put my full weight on my ankle when I’d fixed the tent. Food and a few hours of rest had already improved things enough that I could walk on it, at least a little. It was sore and tender, but at least I could put my full weight on it.
So I felt hopeful. Even as I lay awake for hours through that storm, it felt like maybe my hike wasn’t going to come to an abrupt end after all. I decided to try to keep moving ahead and try to make it to Trout Lake instead of heading back to White Pass. If I could make it that far, I’d take 3 full days off to rest my ankle. And then, who knows? Maybe I’d be able to keep moving forward or maybe I’d need to quit. But no matter what, I wasn’t turning around or quitting today.
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