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Our Vacation

Our vacation in Washington state didn’t go exactly as we expected. The plan was to walk for eight days, from Snoqualmie Pass to Steven’s pass, hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail. We’d been planning this trip for nearly a year and were excited to be off. We had all the gear we’d need – multiple layers, rain cover, food for the eight days the journey would take, plus some emergency rations. We had a GPS device for location and emergency calls, plus a backup device. We even had the weather – instead of the cold rain we’d been anticipating, we had beautiful clear days, warm without being too hot. The one problem, which we didn’t yet realize, was that the warm weather had begun a little too late this year.

That we would have an issue wasn’t apparent from the start. We set out from the trailhead and walked our first steps on the PCT among dense tree cover, glad to finally be here. Quickly we started to climb a seemingly never-ending series of switchbacks, slowly moving up the side of the mountain. We crossed some little waterfalls; crossing the rapidly running water over the slippery stones was a bit delicate with our heavy packs, but we were out for adventure, we thought. We stopped for lunch after about four hours and filtered some water from a nearby waterfall, topping off our supplies. We were moving slowly, but according to the guidebook we were about half-way to our camping spot for the night.

As we continued after lunch, elevation continued to increase and we started to find snow on the trail. Not much, just patches to walk over, but certainly a sign that we were getting higher up. Eventually we got through the thick forest to more open elevations and were treated to some breathtaking views. The sky was completely clear and the mountains all around us were amazing to see. We were nearing the top of the mountain – above most of the the trees, the peak in sight above us; it looked like we were in The Lord of the Rings. The trail was also changing from dirt to rock, which was a bit of a welcome change.

We had, however, been hearing from people coming back that there was snow ahead. We’d only seen little bits on the trail thus far though and things seemed so clear and so warm that we felt like we’d be okay. That feeling changed when we encountered the first real snow on the trail: A stretch of perhaps fifty metres was solid snow, on an uncomfortably sharp angle. A series of footprints carving out a track through the steep barrier showed it was passable though.

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Figure 1: When things started getting real

We’d been walking for almost ten hours at this point. We were getting tired, but still wanted to get to camp on the other side. Amanda was in tears with fear, but she pressed on; we decided she would leave her bag on the side, we would both cross, then I would go back for hers. Slowly, carefully, we crossed safely. In retrospect, this should have been where we stopped. Amanda, though weeping, was determined and we pressed on.

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Figure 2: From slippery snow to sliding scree

Unfortunately, that snow wasn’t the end of the challenge, but the beginning. We kept encountering more and more snow; at one point having to go from snow to scrambling up loose, flat scree, always with a long, steep drop to our sides. We kept moving, hoping to find our campsite soon. We’d made it to the very top of the mountain, so at least there wouldn’t be much more in the way of ascents.

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Figure 3: At the peak

It was around seven o’clock in the evening when we reached yet another stretch of snow across the trail, but the sun was still high in the sky. There looked to be two paths across here: A higher-up, narrow one and a lower path that looked a little bit flatter. The step up to the higher path was a little dicey for Amanda, so we decided to try the lower path. Once again, Amanda left her pack by the side and we climbed down to cross.

We were almost across when Amanda slipped and started to fall down the side of the mountain. I don’t recall thinking anything – I just saw her start to slide, could tell she wouldn’t be able to stop herself, and dove after her.

We fell together, grabbing at the snow. A small tree slowed us a bit and finally some rocks stopped our descent. Fortunately, neither of us seemed hurt: I’d gotten behind Amanda somewhat and my bag had helped to shield a bit of the impact. The trekking pole I was using had snapped (the other had broken previously, when I went through the snow at the peak) so I left it there. We were able to get off the snow, on to the dirt, now on the other side, but about twenty-five or thirty metres below the trail. Somehow adrenaline let us climb up the nearly vertical wall of dirt and roots back to the trail and, continuing on that momentum, I brought Amanda’s bag back over, taking the high path this time.

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Figure 4: Where we fell, as I’m going back the high path to retrieve Amanda’s bag.

I was okay, I thought. Just a little scraped up, certainly a little freaked out. Amanda though was shivering uncontrollably, crying and refusing to move. It looked to me like she was in shock and, while I didn’t think she’d hit her head, I wasn’t completely sure. We talked for a minute, then I hit the SOS button on the GPS.

It seems like many things happened at once now. I was communicating with the SOS dispatcher and then the Search-and-Rescue team, picking out one letter at a time with the little buttons on the device. We got Amanda into warm clothes and I made her some food and hot chocolate, melting snow in our little pot. Two backpackers and their dog, who we’d seen earlier, came back, telling us that it was impassibly snowy further ahead – although two other backpackers we’d seen go by never turned around. They offered very kindly to help us back, but I didn’t think it was safe for Amanda to stand, as she was clearly not in a good state and in any case she was refusing to move. We were perched on a little corner of the trail, snow on either side of us, but we had all our equipment and we had each other.

It was getting late and the bugs were getting fierce, so I set up our tent. There wasn’t really enough room for it – one edge was slanting off the side – but it was enough for now. I got Amanda inside, bundled up with our quilts as we waited for SAR to arrive. She was still shivering and I was growing increasingly worried that something was wrong as we waited.

It was just getting dark when I saw headlamps coming along the trail. The first of our rescuers, David and Zephyr, had arrived. Amanda and I were so incredibly grateful to see them. They’d covered the distance that had taken us nearly twelve hours in something like three hours and seemed cheerful and just glad to be out on the mountain. They assessed Amanda and reassured us both that she’d be okay. We inflated a sleeping mat to get her off the ground and they offered her some candy, which helped to restore her spirits.

More people arrived and as they assessed the situation, they decided we didn’t need the helicopter, but they would stay the night with us there and help us out in the morning. It was reassuring to see how calm and confident they all were, talking about how nice it was to have a “slumber party” up on the mountain. That night, some of them also started bringing in ropes and taking some of our gear down to lighten our load for the next day. It was hard to sleep – I had to lay on my side, lest I start slipping down – but it was very reassuring to have all these calm, confident people with us.

We got started the next morning around 4:30. It was foggy and a little chilly, but the four folks that had spent the night with us – David, Zephyr, Imran, and Alexis – remained unphased and cheerful. We got packed up and both of us were put in climbing harnesses, microspikes, and helmets while they set up ropes across the snow. One of the other rescue team members that had come up took Amanda’s bag for her and we headed off.

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Figure 5: On our way back, the sketchy parts made much safer by our heroes

I was so proud of Amanda for going back. Even with all the gear and the line, it was more than a little freaky to be walking back through those places. Thanks to the support of these amazing volunteers though, we were back in the parking lot after about five hours, where the SAR truck was waiting with food.

The generosity and kindness of the team didn’t stop there though. After the sheriff’s deputy had taken some information – no charge for any of it though (wouldn’t have been even if we’d needed the helicopter, we were told) – another member of the team, Christine, gave us a ride out. An older lady, retired from the Air Force, she’d been hiking her whole life and started volunteering with SAR when her son, also an avid climber and outdoors enthusiast, had been with a friend on a trip who’d been injured and needed rescuing. She drove us first to a little nearby motel which the deputy had recommended, but they didn’t have rooms available at the time. I wasn’t sure if we should wait – it would be a few hours and I wasn’t getting a great vibe from the place nor the person working there – but I also didn’t want to inconvenience Christine further. “Don’t worry about that at all!” she insisted, when I said as much. “When my son is out there, strangers help him” she said, a slight quiver in her voice. “So I’m helping you”.

We drove a little further west to Snoqualmie Ridge (passing by the café from Twin Peaks!) arriving at a very nice hotel there. We booked a room for two nights to recover at the incredibly kind fellow at the front desk, Casey, after hearing our story, upgraded us to the nicest room they had.

I feel exhausted by the endeavour, but two things have become clear. One is that I know, really viscerally, what it means to love someone – diving down the side of a mountain when you see them fall, without thinking twice. The second is how transformative and beautiful the kindness of strangers is. Those mountain views were amazing, but nothing will be as awe-inspiring to me as these people that did so much for us for no other reason than that they could.