Thinking back I cringed a little at the thought of how narrowly I had made it to where I was and what would have happened if I made a mistake. I hiked back to the first spot I reached on the ridge and resurveyed the surroundings. I hiked around the area for a couple hours, backtracking two different times until I got back to the same spot, and eventually traced my steps back to Glacier Creek, found the Trail where it crosses, and followed it up to Fire Creek Pass, which was still covered in snow about eight to ten inches deep and completely exposed, making navigating very difficult.
The north side of the pass still had deep snow drifts and I couldn't see the trail at all at some points. I found my way until the trail became clearer, and I followed it as it dropped in elevation, back into pine forest. It started raining lightly and by nightfall I was pretty wet. I camped on the trail north of Milk Creek. The next two passes between me and Stehekin were all pretty much the same, difficult to maneuver, covered in snow, and sometimes frightening.
I made it to Stehekin on a Friday, my last meal, if you can call it that, on Monday. Hiking without any food, after already barely eating for 9 days previously, was very difficult. Sometimes I could hardly keep moving when going uphill or through the snow. Having to pick my feet up to step over logs or rocks felt like I was lifting blocks of concrete. I ended up consuming massive amounts of water in spite of hardly sweating. I weighed in about eighteen pounds lighter when I got to Stehekin. I was ecstatic to have found my way out and to eat again, but also extremely sore all over and maybe a little disoriented by now.
After deciding to continue north and complete my hike (with a GPS this time), my back pack was unbearably heavy, as I carried a ton of extra food. It had to be at least sixty pounds; the pack I carried into the Sierra being 55 pounds, and that didn't feel nearly as heavy as this.
The first twenty miles to Rainy Pass were all smooth sailing, then it started snowing, and by the time I reached Cutthroat Pass, a fresh 3 -5 inches had fallen. As I approached Cutthroat Pass, the higher I climbed, the more snow was left over from the last storm, although it was frozen to a hard shell and very slippery and difficult to walk on. The north side of the pass was worse and where ever there was a steep ridge, the trail was completely snowed over, then frozen solid, making it nearly impossible, and completely terrifying, to traverse.
South of Harts Pass the trail was treacherous as well, and I had to traverse a section of one ridge on my knees, facing the mountain, and stabbing my trekking poles a foot into the snow as to anchor myself to the mountain.
North of Rock Pass I slid out and went about 100 feet down the ridge until stopping myself by digging my elbows and trekking poles into the ice and snow; then using my trekking pole as a brake slid down the rest of the way to the next switchback.
Several times it took everything I had to keep going. The last day it never got above thirteen degrees, and my nose was bleeding all morning from the cold dry air. By nightfall, before the sun had even finished setting, my thermometer maxed out at zero degrees. After the ice that had formed in my inflatable sleeping pad the night before stabbed a hole through it, I set up a bed of pine branches under my tent for extra warmth on the last night.
I finished my thru hike on November 11th. (Sarmento)
I’m Fine just went through six of his nine lives. For the rest of his life, he’ll be treading on thin ice. From here on, every new day will be a bonus day for him. He has much to be thankful for in that he did not perish from the cold, snow, ice, and hunger. Had he succumbed to the elements, it’s highly unlikely his body would ever have been found. And what about his mother, father, and siblings; there would never be closure for them. I’m Fine got lucky; he’s been given a second chance; it’s not something many people get. Use it well, my friend.
Snows can come early to the North Cascades, as it did this year ( late September 2013) and bury the trail under three to six feet of snow. Even electronic GPS units, like Guthook’s app for Smartphones that can pinpoint the trail under the snow, are of little value in wilderness travel when the trail has to cross slopes with unimaginable steepness to them, and where one misstep can result in a thousand-foot slide to the rocks below.
To be safe, future PCT hikers should plan to end their journey by the last week of September. Starting the middle of April from Campo gives a hiker a full five months to make the journey; it may mean taking a few less days off the trail, but as Virginia Reed said, “Don’t take no shortcuts, and keep moving right along.” I’m Fine is a living testament of the necessity of playing it safe and not dallying.
For all of I’m Fine’s miscalculations, I have the highest regard for this young man. He displayed many of the characteristics that made Shackleton such a great leader. I’m Fine almost "bought the farm,” but instead of bailing from the trail and hightailing it out of the mountains, once he reached Stehekin and the town of Chelan, located at the far east end of Lake Chelan, he resupplied at Chelan with provisions, maps, additional clothing, a cell phone and a GPS unit, and went back to the trailhead at Stehekin and continued north. That was a gutsy thing to do; it was something Amundsen and Shackleton would have done, and my hat goes off to I’m Fine.
Lesson learned, “if ye are prepared, ye need not fear,” (D&C 30:38) and it’s not over until the fat lady sings, and as a finale, for everyone’s peace of mind, end your trip before the end of September.