During my last four days on the trail, starting at Cutthroat Pass just a few miles north of Rainy Pass, a slow-moving winter began moving into the area; first it was just drizzling rain, but as the snow levels lowered, the drizzle turned to sleet and then to snow. Woody Pass was the high point on the trail through the northern part of the Cascades, and OTC and I walked across it with a little more than a foot of snow on the ground– nothing to get too excited about, and on Wednesday, September 25, I crossed the border into Canada. Two days - forty-eight hours later, a massive winter storm, coming off the Pacific Ocean, slammed into the North Cascade Mountains, laying down, in most areas, a minimum of three feet of snow in the high mountain passes and effectively shutting down the trail, from Snoqualmie in the south, through Stevens Pass, Stehekin, Rainy Pass, Hart’s Pass, and beyond – in the north.
Individual hikers became stranded; while small groups began to congregate at Andrea Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven in Baring, twenty miles down the road from the ski resort at Stevens Pass, and trail towns like Winthrop, thirty-five miles east of Rainy Pass, to assess the situation and formulate plans for moving forward, if it were at all possible. Others, who were close to Stehekin, decided that it was time to close up shop for the season, and took the boat across the lake to the town of Chelan, and called it quits for the year.
On Tuesday, October 1, 2013, the first day of the U.S. government shutdown, a small group of seven hikers - Toots Magoots, Tears for Beers, Atlas, Fun Size, Lighthouse, Delightful, and Cuddles, who had been resting in Winthrop and formulating plans for pushing on into the North Cascade Mountains, started from Rainy Pass. They were young and determined, and not about to let a snowstorm deprive them from achieving their cherished goal after having traveled so far and suffered and sacrificed so much.
Without much difficulty, they hiked to Cutthroat Pass and a little beyond, but the lead hikers who were breaking trail – Fun Size and Lighthouse, by this time were postholing through three feet of snow, with those coming behind following in their footsteps; but the pace was slow – only one mile an hour. At one point, the trail circled around a large rock lying beside the trail; here, a snowdrift over four feet high had formed at the edge of a steep slope and it wasn’t deemed prudent to try and break through it. The group turned around and headed back to the parking lot at Rainy Pass, thoroughly disappointed at being turned back
The group studied their maps, looking for an alternative route, one at a lower elevation that would allow them to proceed towards the goal of crossing into Canada, even if it wasn’t at the official PCT crossing. After considering several alternatives, the group decided to try a trail – located twenty miles west of Rainy Pass, called the East Bank Trail. Starting at Highway 20, the trail entered the North Cascade National Park and followed along the east bank of twenty-three-mile-long Ross Lake, a large man-made reservoir formed by damming the Skagit River for hydroelectric power and operated by Seattle City Light.
The following morning, October 2, 2013, the group of seven, headed by trail angel Aloha driving a green van dubbed the Pickle Jar (Aloha is Toots Magoots husband who had been following her and providing support along the trail), pulled into the trailhead parking lot at the East Gate Trail.
To their amazement, they saw two National Park Service vehicles parked in front of the entrance to the trail, effectively blocking it, along with yellow plastic tape with the words, “Caution, do not enter,” printed on it strung around the perimeter of the trailhead. Other hikers, who had the same idea as the seven from the Pickle Jar about hiking the East Bank Trail to Canada, were engaged in conversation with the two NPS rangers standing beside their vehicles, emblazoned with the words “U.S. Park Ranger.”
Bottom line: Because of the U.S. government shutdown, access to all national parks and recreational areas, in essence any entity under federal jurisdiction, was now closed to the public; this included river trips through the Grand Canyon, as well as entrance to the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the North Cascade National Park, which meant that Pacific Crest Trail hikers, or recreationalists of any type, were temporarily being barred from entering the national parks.
The two NPS rangers were polite and very apologetic about the ban they were being compelled to enforce. They knew the decision was out of their hands, and as employees of the federal government, they were obligated to perform their duty, regardless of their personal feelings about the matter.
The hikers huddled among themselves, a dejected lot of humanity if ever there was one. Many shed tears and hugged one another as the phrase was muttered over and over again,
“It’s over with, it’s over with.”
And, indeed, it was, at least for this little group. There was no further recourse to pursuing the trek north; the winter snows had shut down the Pacific Crest Trail, and the U.S. government had shut down the one possible alternative trail.
Back in Skykomish, at Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven, the last of the Class of 2013 PCT hikers were assembling; their situation was a little bleaker than those who were farther up the trail, but in the end, just as disparaging. Several groups from Hiker Haven started north from Stevens Pass; one made it sixteen miles, the other eighteen miles; but ultimately, both groups had to retreat. Reality was, winter had arrived in the North Cascades, and no amount of wishing or determination was going to alter the fact.
Several unfortunate hikers still on the trail woke up to find their tents buried under several feet of snow, and realized they could neither go forward or backward and had the foresight and clarity of thought to sit tight until local search and rescue teams could extract them from their snowy captivity. Such was the case for the Japanese hiker, Taka, who was located in the Milk Creek drainage south of Stehekin, and Make-Do and Kokonut, south of Trout Lake.
Likewise, an extensive ground and air search was conducted by local SAR teams and friends of Rocket Llama, just north of Trout Lake. After several days of sitting tight, rationing her food and other supplies, being passed over by search helicopters, she determined from a study of her maps, that by heading east down the Killen Creek drainage at mile 2,253, she could intersect a Forest Service road. This she did and was successful in connecting with search and rescue personnel who had been scouring the terrain along the PCT for over a week.
Now, in hindsight, was it worth my effort to rise early and be on the trail by four thirty every morning? With only forty-eight hours to spare before the big winter storm hit, and reading the accounts of many who had to abandon the trail for this year, and the accounts of a handful who had to be extracted from the mountains by search and rescue teams, I would say that’s a definite yes.
From day one, back in Campo, I always had this underlying feeling that I needed to keep moving up the trail at a brisk pace, and not dally. Some would call it a "gut feeling," and I can go with that, but my experience with prayer and listening to the "whisperings of the spirit," are more in keeping with my line of thinking.
In closing this long account of my experiences along the PCT, I finish with the story of a thru hiker who I believe is qualified to stand as a representative of all the hikers from the class of 2013 for endurance, tenacity, bravery, commitment, and determination, the same enduring qualities that Shackleton and Amundsen possessed in setting a goal, preparing for and pursuing it, and then enduring to the end until the goal was accomplished.