Carey Kish on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Washington’s North Cascades, returns to Stevens Pass after deciding to abort the hike due to severe winter weather.  Carey Kish photo

STEVENS PASS, Wash. — The long journey begun on April 3 wasn’t supposed to end at Stevens Pass, but rather at the Canadian border 187 miles to the north.

Full-on winter had arrived early to the North Cascades in Washington state, however, and when Mother Nature speaks with such unequivocal force, well, this hiker listens.

Crossing the slush and snow of U.S. Route 2 to meet my relieved wife, Fran, the irony was not lost on me that this same highway terminates at Bangor, Maine, 2,500 miles east and an hour north of our Mt. Desert Island residence.

It is indeed time to go home now.

As my planned finish date of Sept. 26 came and went, and the days melted into October, I knew the time might come when I’d say to myself, “You have no damn business being out here anymore.” That moment arrived on Oct. 8 in the midst of a raging snowstorm.

A day earlier, Fran deposited me and two trail friends – Bubblewrap and No Name – at Stevens Pass. It was 45 degrees and raining heavily – grim conditions for sure, but after sitting idle all weekend waiting for the post office to open to grab resupply boxes, we needed to move. Eleven miles of heads-down walking in the wind-driven wet later, we camped in some trees at 5,000 feet; climbing any higher on Grizzly Peak meant risking a night fully exposed.

Though our three tents stood just feet apart, the usual jovial banter was muted, as we each wriggled out of soaked clothing, burrowed into sleeping bags and boiled water for hot drinks and dinner. Most of our gear was wet, the temperature was dropping and we were only marginally comfortable. Multiple cups of soup failed to boost my spirits, and it wasn’t even 7 p.m. when I switched off my headlamp. Rain, or perhaps snow – I didn’t care to check – continued to ping the tents.

I awoke in the night, shivering. My sleeping bag was now mostly layers of damp nylon and clumps of down from head to toe, the moisture laden air outside and heavy condensation inside the tent having done its job. I unfolded my emergency space blanket and wrapped it around me inside my bag and slept, fitfully, until dawn.

Morning. Four inches of snow on the ground and more falling fast. Frozen tent zippers, half-frozen boots, wet socks, wet everything. And cold. After breakfast, we packed in silence. Packs on, I looked at my partners and asked the essential question: “You OK carrying on?” Nods of agreement, and with that we shuffled off into the storm.

A mile out and 1,000 feet higher, I heard Bubblewrap behind me wince audibly in pain.

I turned and asked if she was OK. “Not so much,” she replied. “Me neither,” I said. She from ice cold fingers and toes, me thinking of saturated gear and 115 miles to the next road crossing. What price going forward, we considered, into the most remote stretch of the entire PCT in such awful, deteriorating weather? Fingers and toes, or perhaps worse?

It was a quick decision, and a good one. I’d been wet and cold almost every day through three weeks of unsettled weather, and the needle on my fun meter had dropped into the red zone. Now conditions had gone from uncomfortable to downright dangerous. This was it; we would turn around and go back.

We waited a half-hour for No Name, who’d gone ahead, thinking he would reach the same conclusion. No show. Returning to the campsite, we erected Bubblewrap’s two-person tent and sat for three hours. Still no sign of No Name. By early afternoon, dead set against spending another night out, we hiked out, plowing through knee-deep snow until nearly nightfall.

Back at Stevens Pass, we contacted search-and-rescue authorities and an attempt was undertaken the next day to locate our friend, but to no avail. Fortunately, No Name, a British military man with a clear head and strong legs, made his way to the pass and safety on his own in an epic 27-mile, 15-hour struggle.

After 187 days and 2,466 extraordinary miles, my hike was over for this year. I’ll return next August to finish up and earn the coveted PCT thru-hiker patch.

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and author/editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @ Carey Kish.


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