Heartbreak at the Northern Terminus

My eyes are sore and puffy from the smoke. I breathe in, also smoke. The air is thick with it and I’m amazed that I’m allowed to be here. I am so, so close to the Northern Terminus, only 3 miles away, yet I’m still convinced for some reason I won’t make it. Yesterday hiking from Harts Pass to Windy Pass, I had seen flames, a tree on fire, smoke plumes rising into the air, close to the trail, and floating away to make ironically beautiful sunsets and red tinged clouds. The drive from Mazama to Seattle can only be described as smokey. The drive from Seattle to Manning Park, we had seen the red glow of fire next to the trail. My injury aches and protests at me, it has done for over 1000 miles now. I tell myself, just get to the terminus, it doesn’t matter what happens after. I dare not believe that I am going to actually get there. So, so many obstacles, logistics, wild fires, 2 trips out of the country. I am in Canada now. For the first time since starting the Pacific Crest Trail, I walk South. I walk South towards the United States. It is only when I am 0.3 miles away, I start to cry. I realise that I will get to to the Northern Terminus. The tears are of relief, pride, gratitude but most of all, heartbreak. I hear my friends cheering ahead. They had made it. Finally my moment comes. I am in awe. There is monument 78 and next to it, is this wooden monument which every single hiker dreams of seeing, dreams of touching. A closure, that not only had I succeeded in my thru hike, but for now, my journey had ended, and then the tears of a broken heart started and I put my arms around the cold wooden statue and cried and cried and cried, longing for it to not be over. I had made it.

Northern Washington in October

Fear or Fact

My journey to the terminus had taken me through Washington in October, which is famously a time that is advised to be avoided. I’d hiked all of Oregon alone, in a blissful state of solitude and reflection. For my final miles in Washington however, myself and Moo decided to hike together, to finish with a friend.

I am glad we did.

‘Don’t go alone into Glacier Peak Wilderness’ I had heard people say. Fear mongering on trail is to be taken with a pinch of salt and its something that really annoys me. Everybody has different limitations. ’No, seriously don’t be alone’. Why, after over 2000 miles of hiking were people still trying to scare me. The hiking in Washington is harder than Oregon, or most of California. Steep and rocky terrain, huge climbs and then descents, and the sun setting earlier and rising later, made it harder to get in the miles during daylight, but It still wasn’t clear why people were warning me though, as its not like any of the trail was easy.

A few days into Section K, what is known as the hardest section on the entire PCT, I started to understand.

Blowdown’s at night

The Blowdowns

Dark was falling. Moo was about one mile ahead of me. On FarOut someone said that they had counted 126 blowdowns in an 11mile descent. Another commented that they’d hurt their knee and were not sure they could hike out. ‘Be careful’ they wrote. I interpreted this as more fear mongering, but soon I would understand. When I found myself in front of a huge blowdown, unable to see which direction the trail was going in, I assumed it was on a switchback, and that the bear prints which I’d thought were footprints were heading down to that direction. It was steep. Really steep. I threw my pack and poles down towards a bush and slid down towards them on my butt. I looked around only to not be able to see the trail. I slid down some more. The river roaring below me at the bottom of the mountain, seemed louder. I had lost the trail, and I didn’t know how to get back up to find it. The terrain was dry, wood chips and pine needles. It was slippy and there were only a few small roots to cling on too. Think. ‘How would a bear get up? A bear has claws!’ I looked at my hands. Could I use my fingers like claws? I tried it. I dug each finger into the side of the mountain. Shaking, I pulled myself up. I texted Moo through Garmin. ‘Please could you wait for me? I just had an incident’. She coaxed me through another 50 blowdowns in the dark that night. We camped exhausted and bewildered. The following morning I walked through ancient forest and more blowdowns. The most innocent blowdown of all. A shiny white fallen tree, I put my foot over it, knowing all I needed to do was to keep my balance and I’d be over it. I paused. I felt myself slipping down it, down into the steep cliff. Again. I dug into that tree with my thighs. Kicked into the ground with my heels. Stabbed with my poles, trying to self arrest in the dirt. Nothing worked. I couldn’t stop my fall. It’s over. I wonder what will be broken. Less than 100 miles and it’s over. I opened my eyes. My face was in the dirt. My body was splayed open on my front. My backpack was still on, and my poles were flung. I had been very, very close to hitting a tree. Everything hurt, but nothing hurt too much. Nothing was broken! I was alive! I stood up, dripping blood from multiple wounds and went to find Moo, who I should add, is a nurse.

Section K, I decided, was hard. There are river crossings and other obstacles, but the thrill of the risk and the colours of Washington in fall, made it one of the best parts of trail. I walked all of Washington, all the way to Windy Pass, the official closure.

Meeting the Northern Terminus for the first time

October 17. Manning Park, BC.

I had made it. I stood at the Northern Terminus with Moo, Blender, Lightening Rod and Twinkle Toes. Moo and I had driven through the night to get there, hardly daring to believe the Canadian side would still be open as the smoke was so bad. The others had bought Timbits and Prosecco and despite the fact I had chosen to hike alone for most of the trail, I will always be incredibly grateful to have shared this moment with friends. A memory we will always have together.

No break up is easy and after all, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The last few weeks of the PCT, it was like I knew the breakup was coming. I knew that it wasn’t going to last forever, that the end was near, yet I kept going, kept loving the trail regardless. I kept throwing my trail weary body down every mountain and staggered up every climb. I started to resent each climb. The 25 miles out of Steheiken felt impossible. I was tired, I hurt, but I still loved fiercely, even though I knew the end was coming.

And then it was over. Turning my back on the trail and then leaving Manning Park. I cried when I washed the dirt from the trail off my body and my clothes for one last time that night. I felt so sad to know, for now, there will be no more dirt.

I told my friends and my family that I had succeeded my attempt to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail. They congratulated me, and then they asked me; ‘How do you feel? Are you Ok?’ I didn’t understand how they knew that I would be broken. I didn’t understand how instead of joy, I felt empty and lost. A 3 year journey, a dream since I was 20. All the planning, working, dedication to achieving something, it ends so abruptly and then we are thrown back into society confused and unsure and not realising that its not acceptable to wipe your nose on your sleeve and put Neosporin or chapstick on the cuts on your knee in public.

I’d wanted the lifestyle. I’d wanted the Pacific Crest Trail to be my home. I’d wanted to sleep out under the stars and sweat up climbs and watch the sunset on beautiful ridge lines every single day. It was never about reaching Canada, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t make it. I’ve heard rumours of hikers walking through the border fire closure, but after seeing how close the fires were to the trail, seeing actual flames and fresh smoke plumes starting before my eyes, I didn’t want my ending to be something I couldn’t be proud to share. I love how I also hiked the Canadian miles. The International Pacific Crest Trail! My ending was perfect.

I walked every single mile of the PCT which was officially open totalling 2577.1 miles. My journey started on the evening of May 4th and ended October 17th.

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Comments 9

  • Denis Bousquet : Nov 2nd

    Well, dag it, grabbed book and map few feet from table/desk; phone went blank, erased my tome of North Cascades experiences.
    Briefly. side trip from Stehekin River Road ne to enter vale of Bridge Creek, foot of astounding 6000 foot wall of Mt Goode..a broad wall, near vertical, miles wide. Challenges climbers. When I was there, camping, two climbers lashed to the face, signaled by flashlight. I returned signal. Could hear them talking in the quiet night. Next morning, climbers had vanished. Found on my phone climbers photos from the wall, the distant valley floor far, far below. I venture that few places deliver such astonishing climbers visions. Mt. Goode, 3rd or 4th tallest nonvolcanic mountain in Washington State, named for a surveyor, I think, pronounced “Good,” or, incorrectly, popularly, “Goodie.” It is well hidden amidst tall peaks in south portion of North Cascades National Park.
    Several days later I ascended the then rudimentary path, informal trail, to a bench on the peaks sw side. Vast views of peaks til they faded into hazy blue! Bonanza is the tallest nonvolcanic peak, quite evident from the bench. Below. 1000 feet, cupped. Is a blue green lake. One of the most beautiful places I have seen, period! 2 years later my long time university friend, Donna, came to hike and backpack. I took her to the extraordinary bench. High on Goode’ shoulder.
    The PCT crosses North Cascades Highway 20 and heads north to beautiful Cutthroat Pass. I visited that many times, always in autumn. The uniquely Cascades golden Lyall’s larch turns the area into a fairy landscape with tall peaks all around. You went over this pass on PCT.
    I never got far north of the pass, it’s splendor so special. Wish I had, some fine country north. Though not within the boundary of North Cascades National Park, the area north has much to offer. Unfortunately, my aging and circumstances closed my adventure days on the trail. In May, 1996, I came to own my first, extraordinary dog. Anatplian Shepherd Dog. From the high plain south of the high Pontic Alps of Turkey. Presently, I share life with my 4th ASD. HE is a wee bit taller than average. My disability limits where we can go. And we do as much as possible, every day. He is tall and has a perfect face mask. And many surprises. So, life continues to challenge and reveal experiences at 81 years. An old Norsk(Norwegian) saying; ” Uffdah!!” says it all!

  • Denis Biusquet : Nov 3rd

    Sure hope you explore the many superlative places at New Zealand. South Island treks are famous, among the finest on the planet.

    I have backpacked as much as possible in the Cascades. Much in the rugged Goat Rocks Wilderness. Around and at Mt. Rainier National Park. And many times close to and within Monte Christo peaks. Shortly after I moved to Washington in 1970s, discovered the splendors of this old mining townsite. Back then. was able to drive to the site, long since isolated by washed out bridge. Since it is private. there is no money to reattach the isolated townsite to the normal grid. The town’s folk raised cash to reinstall a bridge in early 2000’s. The bridge was erected in that October. And washed away before any official vehicle crossed it. Those folks that had cars, trucks up at the town could not get their vehicles out. And those now old conveyances are mouldering, trapped by a vicious river and eroding, old road track. Site was serviced by a railroad to Everett, Washington, so ores from the high mines far above town could be harvested and shipped from Everett..Thus, Everett was developed at the end of the 19th C. And became the site of Boeing Company’s largest development and largest building on planet Earth! The assembly building can be seen from peak tops far from Everett! When the difficulty to maintain the oft washed out tracks to Monte Christo became impossible and more costly than the ores carried outbound, the project was abandoned. It remains in private hands. Has a RR turntable that still operates and is fondly visited by hikers daring to cross the Sauk River via a fallen tree.

    Of course I have hiked Olympic National Park. Nearlybevery trail mile. Some, many times. One place I loved is atop a peak. A small meadow like camp was my special place for August visits to view the meteor shower and a close up view of the August moon rising and hovering abovrvtgevgreatcmass of Mt. Olympus. Olympus is covered by ice. And, to the west, you can watch the sun set into the Pacific! Nowherevhave I read of anyone describing this special site. Alas, I shot 35mm slide film, Kadakchrome or Ektachrome; lost in my zillions of boxed slides and later color prints. My life will never be long enough to find all. Much less, view each or identify each!
    You may have crossed the Goat Rocks Wilderness via the PCT. I have a buddy, now retired, that was a ranger in that district. So. I had many chances to explore, both soloborcwith the friend on his days off. And have a few large format color prints of views if Mount Rainier from super spectacular locations high up on the remnants of the ancient volcano that Goat Rocks is.
    Another special place is where the PCT approaches and crosses Interstate 90 and heads north over a spectacular stretch. There is a few hundred yards or more called, “the Cat Walk ” You must have traversed the dizzy tread. I never hiked my dogs over it.
    Goodness! Glacier Peak Wilderness! Many great times spent there. Most beautiful, high on the north west shoulder, camped, sunsets so extraordinary. So much relief from vslleyvfloor to summits below. A vastness only similar to that of the Grand Canyon. I packed into the south side several times
    And hiked into the glacial basin just south of the summit. The basin, then, was filled with an ancient Glacier. A large photo print offers the incredible spectacle of the location. Tall peaks which birth icy tongues that feed the vast Glacier offset the splendors of what once was yhevCasvades most explosive volcano and Could, again.
    Mt. St. Helens: entranced me. I followed every news item as the peak creaked. Moaned and shifted it’s mass until the Sunday before. I drove up a logging road just free of spring snows, early May, 1980. At thevroad’s end. A fire watch viewing cabin, still open.. A perfect view of the rumbling mountain. The following weekend I determined to get close without breaking law and camp at thevroaf’s other fork terminus. It was apparent that the lower road road would be bare of snow. My vehicle. Packed, ready to go. I received a phone call from a Co worker. Our employer had fired her at that Friday’s day end. So, off I went to console her. I drove back to my residence and slept in. And did not drive to my planned camp. That Saturday, I was busy with dumb stuff and went to bed late. On Sunday, I got up late and had some breakfast. Went about a nice, sunny day’s business. I didvnotvlearn of the eruption until late afternoon
    Went to the watertower at the park on Capitol Hill,, ascened the steps tobthe top/viewing platform. Enclosed to prevent accidents. Only a polluted haze presented itself to the south. The day was clear.
    Soon I learned that the place I planned to camp fir the weekend was wiped out. Most perished.
    It WA a strange and baffling experience.
    Even if I had survived the mighting displacement of half the mountain, the blasts dense volcanic ash cloud would have rendered my vehicle inoperable. I attended a discussion at an outdoors equipment store, R E I, Scientists and some who had been near to the eruption discussed the great, geological event. I was profoundly affected. It was as close to death as anyone could get and survive, not by my wits, but by sacrifice of a camping trip. I had cheated the Great Unforgiver by a slight kindness to a Co worker!

    I have a pack of other stories of icy, blowing snows and back country skiing. Accidental survival many times, like a cat,s nine lives!

    So, enjoy your every day and realize it is YOUR day and no one else can have it. You trekked the great and grand PCT.

    One almost post script: due to Mt. St. Helen’s vast output of ash, summer, 1980, disallowed many hikes or backpack trips in Cascades. Brush a fir tree branch and you unleashed a little volcano of ash and choaking, coughing threat to the lungs.

    In September, 1980. I flew to San Francisco to visit my classmates friend from a Midwest university. Both grads with architecture degrees, both with an intense interest in outside activities and the natural environment, we embarked on a short trip to Yosemite National Park. Arriving at a planned camp site, we pushed through a dense wood of willows beside a beautiful lake. Lighted by the moon. I was the lead. Both of us carried sleeping bags. Suddenly. A shout! In a moment something came crashing though thevwillows. And ran into me. I fell. David quizzed me. A bear ran into us!

    Minutes later, we entered a campsite, all turned upside down. A bear had visited. The folks in the tent startled the bear and the bruin scampered into the willows. We excused ourselves. It was 2 a.m. And found a quieter place to doze off. Lake side. Tiny ripples and a ruffle. The air was cold and a clear crisp night led into a beautiful morning. I got my first view of Yosemite at Lk..Teneya. From there we drove over TheSierra’s highest pass and down to a junction at a small town. And visited a large lake with tuff towers exposed as the lake level fell due to water drawn off to Los Angeles, early 20th C. Little, odd hills around: volcanos from activity 1000 years earlier. Then off to a trail head east of Yoemite. We packed in gaining Elevation, at times almost unnoticed. We reached 1000 IslandvLakecand camped, well above 10 000 feet. To the east rise two peaks, sentinels of the place. One peak is cathedral-like, soaring, splendid. A small Glacier hangs about it’s chin like structure. The lake is set in a parkland, absolutely flat. A meadowlark grand as God’s hand could ever bequeath. During the night a frightful explosion awakened us in the tent. The ground shook. Then, great clattering of mammoth boulders and sheets of granite debris fell like Niagara Falls off the two peaks and down to the far end if the lake. Flashes occurred in the sky to the east and more rumbles underfoot.
    We never learned if a bomb ha been tested far to the eat in Nevada. where atomic tests still occurred. Or an actual quake. It remains a mystery.
    A few days later we exited the trek and drove back to Lk Tenaya. The next day we hiked the trail high to a peak just north of famed Half Dome. I had to hough and puff and had some trouble with high Elevation. Clouds Rest, 1000 feet taller than Half Dome. From the tippy top, no one pestered. It was all.our’s! Grandest view of all Yosemite! No ratings no prevention from a false step atop. It is the finest view of the Sierra Crest to the east and northeast. And, down, down to the floor of Yosemite Valley.
    Nothing can top THAT!
    Next day we took a ride into Yosemite Valley, parked and jogged most of the valley to the trail below Half Dome. Visited a lake hidden in that secreted place, where a chunk of cliff fell in thev29th C. And rearranged the valley floor and lake.
    We visited a lodge built in 1920s. It has Native American architectural detailing and is a worthy gem of the Park.

    7 years later I returned to Yosemite, to join a clan of close friends and Co workers to scatter David’s ashes at and along Tenaya Creek, boiling from runoff following a great winter of snows..We were just below the summit of the Grand Glacier carved walls of Clouds Rest.
    It was an honor to share. David had money placed in his will to pay for my flight to San Francisco and to Yosemite. For all of us.
    As we returned to the parking area, near the west end of Lake Tenaya, a bear came running toward us.
    I am almost sure it was…THAT BEAR!

    Thank you for sharing some of my life’s most profound moments.
    The Siron’s Call of the mountain’s is powerful and you can never shake it!

  • David Odell : Nov 3rd

    Congratulations on finishing your PCT hike. Enjoyed your excellent journal. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

  • Bluewhale : Nov 3rd

    I’ve looked forward to reading your journal entries. Thank you for letting me vicariously experience the PCT, the good and the not-so-good. My best wishes to you as you reacclimate.

  • Robby : Nov 4th

    How selfish of anybody to ignore the fire closures. They are jeopardizing the future of the PCT as well as endangering themselves, firefighters, and any volunteer.

  • Al Ripley : Nov 4th

    Enjoyed this story immensely. Old retired backpacker here, that still love being in the Az mountains. Thank You!

  • Dan : Nov 6th

    Nice read! But honestly it reads like the author conveniently skips the poor decisions made before getting into this precarious situation.

  • Doninic Jacques : Nov 8th

    Well, Washington is wild. The first I hiked the PCT, I finished October 29th in the snow and I had to skip from Rainy pass to Hart pass, to get ahead of another snow storm.

    The second time I hiked the PCT, I was still in the snow and I had to finish by Ross Lake, on October 9th.

    The third time I hiked the PCT, it was such a different experience. I had 4 days of rain for the whole trail. When it was raining, I was in town and I finished on October 4th.

    The PCT is an amazing trail, but the trail won’t adapt to you. You have to adapt yourself (if possible) to the trail. And the limit are relatively different for each other. So sometimes, you can’t keep up with some others… You have to respect yourself and sometimes, you have to get out. And that’s what happened the 4th time


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