In the early afternoon I see the postman driving off. “Maybe it came today?”, I say to Lian. “Maybe it did. We’ve been waiting for so long.” We’ve been wondering for days now when, or even if we would get an answer. Our mailbox is at the end of our driveway, by the street. I put my coat on, go outside, walk over to it and open the mailbox door. There’s a letter. I pull it out and turn it over. It has a big logo on the top left corner. It’s from Canada.
Impatiently, I take the letter from the envelope, open it and read. After just a few sentences my eyes light up and I feel an explosion of joy bursting inside of me. Yes, finally! The last one is in! I rush back into the house. “Uhm, Lian?”, I say. She looks up from her sewing. She’s repairing her backpack and immediately notices the huge grin on my face. With one hand I hide the letter behind my back and say:
“American visa for six months, check.
Pacific Crest Trail permit, check
California back country fire permit, check.
Search & Rescue PLB transmitter permit, check.
Aaaaaaaand… The special visa that allows us to enter Canada from the United States through the mountains… CHECK!! All the permits and visas have arrived!”
I pull the letter from behind my back and show it to her. The smile on her face is now at least as big as mine. She shoots up from her chair, takes the letter from my hand and starts reading. Her eyes light up. “Yesss!!! We can go!!”, she says and with the letter still in her hand she hugs and kisses me.
This was the last permit we were waiting for. Preparations for the Pacific Crest Trail had required quite a bit more attention than most of the hikes we had done before. There were so may pieces to this puzzle and we needed to solve every single one. It was especially difficult, because we had no idea what the final picture would look like. What is in this puzzle? Which pieces are there? Do we know all of them? Are we maybe forgetting something without even realizing it?
With her arms still around my neck, she looks me in the eye. “Do you remember, a year and a half ago, when we decided to do this trip? We had no idea what it would all entail. My mind was bursting with questions. And now… now it’s all done. It’s time. We can go!” She sighs as though a weight has been lifted off her shoulders. It’s not surprising. In the beginning our minds were so full of questions. It was like an unclimbable mountain.
However, as always, it’s only a mountain when you’re down below. Half way up it’s just a big hill and before you know it you’re at the top. Nothing is impossible. Keeping that in mind, we decided not to get flustered. We categorized everything expedition style. Route planning, food provisioning, the desert with its heat and lack of water, the high mountains with their snow and cold. What equipment will be useful and what can we do without? But also: what are the financial consequences? Like our mortgage, the costs we incur during the hike, taking unpaid leave from work and therefore having no income? Which possible risks are we taking and how can we eliminate or mitigate them? What if something bad happens to us? Should we revise our will? So many questions.
Now that I think of it; training was another one of those things. What is the best way to prepare your body and mind for such an ultralong hike? We have already walked over 680 training miles in the past year. The last few months we even attached weights to our ankles to simulate slopes. We thought we were doing a pretty good job.
But you can also train too much…
The last few weeks have been tense and confusing. I put too much strain on the muscles on the inside of my knee and now there is excess fluid in the knee cavity that’s pressing on the tendons. This is the last thing we need this close to our departure. We were doing so well, and now this. My leg is covered from top to bottom with black sports tape. I stare at it wistfully. I’m disappointed and worried. Depressed even. We’ve just returned from a training weekend in the German Eifel. But after about three hours of hiking, I got a stabbing pain in my knee cavity. We had to stop and go home. I couldn’t walk anymore.
Lian sees the gloomy look on my face and now she looks worried, too. “How’s your knee?” she asks. Pfff, Lian, I don’t know. I’m not feeling anything at the moment, but I’m not putting any pressure on it now. “I have an appointment with the physical therapist tomorrow. He’ll have something to say about it.” She wants to talk about it some more, but I avoid the topic. After all this preparation… What if I have to quit the PCT after only one day and go home? I just don’t want to think about it.
The physical therapist gives me a new hiking schedule. I have to walk at a slower pace and take a break every hour to do stretching exercises. He teaches Lian how to apply the sports tapes on my leg. Tomorrow we leave for our last major training session. Ten days of hiking on La Gomera, a dry and hot volcanic island near Tenerife, North Africa. We want to do lots of climbs and descents and get used to hiking in hot weather. In less than a month we’ll be starting our PCT hike in the desert. This is also our last equipment check. Whatever we bring along now is also really going on the hike. We’re excited and curious to see if it all works out.
On the kitchen scale in front of me is a small pile of black fabric. They are my new underwear and they look as thin as lace. We are literally weighing everything, in an attempt to get the total weight of our load under 17 pounds and these three pairs of underwear are 2.5 ounces lighter than the previous ones. “Do you think they’ll last the whole trail?”, I ask Lian. “They’re sports underwear. They should, shouldn’t they?”, she answers. She sounds uncertain. I’m not entirely confident either. At least these undies have enough ventilation to prevent my butt from sweating. I guess we’ll see…
Two chapters from Part one: Desert
Chapter: What Are We Getting Ourselves Into…
Today is D-Day. It’s April 15th and here we are in Southern California, pumped up and ready to go. Ready to begin our 2650-mile adventure straight through the United States of America. A six-month hike through wilderness and secluded nature reserves. What a challenge. Quite overwhelming actually. Especially since statistics show that only twenty percent of all the hikers that start the trail, make it all the way to the end.
Still feeling a little bit nervous, we stare at the monument. Five white poles with the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail logo written on them. Yes, this is real. We’re here. It’s about to begin. With a slight sense of disbelief, we look at the barbed-wired metal wall that separates Mexico from the United States. In front of us only dry, barren, grey-brown wasteland littered with rough bushes and cacti. What a barren place! It’s so dry, it’s making Lian a bit nervous. Where will we ever find water? Will the two gallons of water in our backpack be enough to get us to the next well or livestock trough? What kinds of adventures will we have in the 41 national parks and wilderness areas? We have no idea. Suddenly everything’s going so fast. Another hiker agrees to take a photo of us at the monument. Then we kiss, touch the border wall, and take the first steps. This is it! We have started our journey! We're actually going to do this!!
It feels strange to begin, a bit unreal. It’s really not so surprising if we look back at the past few days. After the intense training on La Gomera, which went well by the way, we specifically wanted to take it easy the last week before we left. We had thought we might be able to rest, leave all the hard work behind us and just dot a few i’s and cross the t’s before embarking on our trip. All we wanted to do was focus on the last little things on our to-do list and relax. After all, everything had been prepared in detail, expedition style, for over a year. However, things didn’t work out as we had planned, and the stress only got worse... Like the day before we left…
“Oh no! This can’t be happening right now!” Lian screams. If looks could kill … She points at her backpack: there is yet another tear in the titanium welded seam. Oh no, not this again! “Now what? We leave tomorrow and I am not carrying that heavy back-up backpack! Absolutely not!” We are using superlight, somewhat experimental backpacks. They still have a few flaws here and there. This particular flaw had already been an issue during one of our training weeks. “It’s late.” I say. I am upset and frustrated. “I don’t know if I can reach the welder who helped us fix this the last time.” I anxiously pick up the phone and dial the number. It rings and rings. It feels like hours but finally he answers the phone! I explain the situation and even though his shop is closed, he agrees to help us. I get in the car, drive over to him and that same night, at 7 p.m., he repairs Lian’s backpack and reinforces mine just in case. Fantastic! Gerrit, thank you so much!!!
The next morning our friends Melissa and Nils take us to the airport and after a fourteen-hour flight we arrive in San Diego. For the first two days we stay with Scout and Frodo, extremely kind PCT volunteers called Trail Angels. These are not their real names, by the way. On these kinds of long-distance trails, the other hikers give you a nickname. Our stop in San Diego is mostly spent grocery shopping and making resupply packages which mostly contain food, but also maps and sometimes equipment like new shoes. We’re sending them to different locations in the wilderness, where we can’t buy any of those things. Locations like Trail Angels that live close to the trail or gas stations and post offices of teeny-tiny towns. “Close to the trail” is a relative concept. At times we have to take a detour from the trail for a day to retrieve our supplies, and then walk the same route back to where we left off.
At Scout and Frodo’s, we are approached by a young, fit-looking woman. “Hi, my name’s Happy Feet. Have you heard?! Yesterday someone had to turn back, because she’d been bitten by a rattlesnake!” This scares me. Nervously, I scratch my ear. Uhm… did we bring some kind of antidote? Not really. We ask around and the American hikers reassure us. They never bring anything for it. “If they bite you, tough luck. Usually people don’t die right away, but a few species will kill you instantly. There isn’t a hospital anywhere near the trail anyway, and by the time the helicopter arrives, it’ll probably be too late.”
Alright … Is this supposed to be comforting? We are wilderness guides, specialized in the Northern regions. Bears and such. We understand them. We have a lot of experience with them. But this is our first time hiking in the desert with snakes, toxic spiders, and scorpions. Despite our thirty-year wilderness experience we kind of feel like beginners right now.
And off we go. Scout and Frodo were nice enough to take us to the starting point of the trail. We’ve taken the picture and are walking the first steps. We’ve got two gallons of water and food for six days in our backpacks. The base weight of our packs with all our gear is only fifteen pounds, but with all this extra food and water we are carrying almost forty. But this is what we’ve trained for. So, for the first day we happily strut through the landscape that is best described as a moon landscape interspersed with green grass, yellow flowers and pine trees that have cacti growing up against them. Extraordinary. It’s spring and… everything is in bloom!
Very soon the uncertainty of the start is replaced by amazement with everything we see, smell, and hear. The cacti are in bloom, and everywhere we look there are butterflies enjoying the nectar. Lizards are scattering away in front of our feet. We see a tall agave with a beautiful flower bud, and the smell of fresh pines opening up in the sun fills the air. But also the clear, open night skies, where we can always see the milky way, astonish us. And the beautifully colored birds we have never seen before. Fortunately, there is an app for that, so we regularly check our nature and star guides on our phones. We are in no hurry here. We are deliberately only walking fifteen miles a day to find our rhythm and to get used to the heat. We have all the time in the world to look around and enjoy all the beauty that crosses our path. Who would have thought the desert would look so incredibly beautiful in spring?
Let’s do this!
Chapter: Black Out
Today I’ve got the biggest smile on my face. This is such a wonderful day! I am so happy. We’ve walked through open terrain with amazing views all day. Lots of bushes and lush vegetation. There are so many beautiful things to see!
At some point we run into about twenty hikers sitting in some shrubs. We come closer and I stop at the first group. “Hello there, nice gathering.” They look up. “Hey, so nice to see you. Come and join us.” I don’t know them, but it doesn’t matter. We should take a break around now anyway. We take off our backpacks and sit down with them.
“Cookie?” The man next to me offers me a packet of cookies that he just got from someone else. “Oh yes, I love cookies!” I take one and pass the packet on to the next person. “Why are you all sitting here?” A young man with a head full of curls looks at me and answers: “Oh, the heat. It’s way too hot to hike. We’re waiting it out in the shade." It’s really nice and friendly here. We listen to their conversations. They are very motivated, and we notice that they all have their own personal story and reason to be here.
“I’ve been working in the IT business for a while now. Ten-hour workdays, hardly any free time and the enormous pressure to perform and succeed made me think. I’m not sure what I want, but I hope to find out who I am at the end of this six-month trip”, says the young man across from me. A few others nod in agreement. It turns out a lot of them have seen the movie ‘Wild’ and were inspired by it. The movie is about a young woman who, after a life full of domestic violence and drugs, decides to walk part of the PCT. She has no experience, buys equipment that’s much too heavy and reaches the end of her rope at times, which actually gives her life a new incentive. Many of the people we meet here see it like this: “If it worked for her, why wouldn’t it work for me?” Yes, well, why wouldn’t it? It’s a great source of inspiration, but some people are a bit too naïve. We hear things like: “I’ll get fit on the trail” or “How hard can it be, it’s just walking.” Hmmm… going on an ultra-long-distance hike like this one, almost completely unprepared; I’m not so sure about that. I’m sure it will bring them a wonderful adventure, but they are bound to run into places and situations they wish they hadn’t. In the movie ‘Wild’ those are the moments that give the main character strength. Let’s hope it will do the same for them.
After an hour or so we get up. “This was really nice, but we should get going. Maybe we’ll see you tonight or in the next couple of days?” André says. He picks up his backpack and swings it on his back. “Are you sure?” a young woman asks. My guess is she’s no older than 22. “Yes, why? It’s not that big a climb, is it?” André answers, as he fastens his hip belt. “Well, we’re all staying here until that wall has cooled off. I’m from here. That’s the south wall and it’s been baking in the sun all day. It’s not a good place to be right now. André stops what he’s doing and looks at her. “It can’t be that bad, can it? It’s just a few hours until we reach the lake. It’s not far.” She shrugs. “I still think it’s better if you wait for a little while.” The others nod in agreement. In the meantime, I’d already gotten up as well. We look at each other and without saying anything we decide to take her advice and sit back down again.
It’s around five when the first hikers start to leave the shade. We’re leaving too. The path zigzags up the hill and is quite easy to walk. “Jeez… it is quite hot here,” I say while turning my head towards André. He’s behind me, just out of my view. There’s no wind and the bare stone wall is scorching hot. The invisible infrared radiation coming from the rocks is very intense. The hikers were right: this is not a good place to be during the day.
I use my umbrella to shade my head and body from the heat. André only has his hat with neck protection. We don’t talk much and keep on going until suddenly something tugs on my backpack.
I turn around and what I see scares me to death. It’s André! He’s grabbing onto my backpack with his right hand and he’s white as a sheet. He stumbles forward. “I don’t feel very well,” he says weakly. He staggers and suddenly falls forward onto the ground. Boom! With a big thump he falls flat on his face. My goodness, what’s just happened, what’s going on! He’s lying still on the ground. He’s not moving! My heart is beating like crazy as I walk towards him... “What’s wrong?! What’s wrong?!” I cry anxiously. He was walking behind me; I didn’t see it coming. He’ll be all right, won’t he? I grab his arm. “Huh?” He looks up at me with dull eyes and he’s somewhat disoriented. “Why am I on the ground?” His face is grey and it’s not just the dust. It’s pale, like all the blood has drained from his face. It’s a strange sight in this heat. Just a few minutes ago he looked completely different. “I feel sick. Like I’m going to throw up,” he says. I help him up slowly. “Wooooow! I’m dizzy. I’m blacking out.” That’s all he can say, and he faints again. I look around anxiously. My head is spinning. There isn’t any shade anywhere. No plants or overhang, nothing at all. What the hell am I going to do? I see a big rock to our left. “André, can you hear me?” Nothing. I slap his cheek softly. He wakes up and lifts his head. “Come, I’ll sit you down on that rock, so you can rest and drink some water.” I pull him up and lead him there.
He sits down. His elbows resting on his legs and his hands holding his head. He needs shade. Uhm, oh yes, I get his umbrella, open it, and let him hold it. His head hangs down. With my index finger I gently lift his chin up, so he can stare at the horizon. His eyes glaze over. I don’t understand any of this. I’m completely fine, but he’s having trouble focusing. We’re not sweating any differently than earlier today. “Sweating. Yes, water!” I say half out loud. I get my water bottle and let him drink. He gulps it up quickly. “Blaaargh!” He bends over and all the water comes back out. “Take it easy. Small sips!”
Bit by bit I start to remember these symptoms: this looks like heatstroke. Strange. He’s wearing airy clothing, and a hat with neck protection, and sunscreen. While he sips the water, I watch him anxiously. His body must be overheated, maybe even feverish. I can recall the articles I’ve read about this clearly in my mind. I have to cool him down immediately. But how? There is no shade here, no wind and the ground and rocks are very hot. I look at my water supply. I have enough to cool him down a little bit, but I can’t make him a shower. I take his hat, soak it in water and put it back on. “Better?” The drops of water stream over his neck flap down his back underneath his shirt. It’s lukewarm water, but he looks a bit better for it. “Yes, I feel a bit better.” He says softly. I look at my water again. “Give me your umbrella and take off your shirt. I’ll soak that with water, too.” Slowly, he does what I tell him. I don’t have much water and we still have a few hours to go. I have to consider my personal safety. I mustn’t use all the water. I’ll just wet the core then. He gives me his shirt and I wet the heart and lungs area and the back. He puts it back on and holds the umbrella over his head.
I keep talking to him to make sure he stays awake and after thirty minutes, two hikers approach us, a couple. They see him sitting there, and the worried look on my face must have alarmed them. “Hey, are you alright? Can we do anything to help?” I look at them, back to André and back to them. “Yes, he’s fainted in the heat; we have to get out of this oven.” Their expressions change. They look concerned now. “That doesn’t look so good,” says the woman. It annoys me. “Yes, well that doesn’t really help now, does it?” My strong reaction startles her. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” I look at her and sigh. “No, I’m sorry. I’m just tense.” She nods. The man who’s with her takes over. “What do you want to do? Go back or keep going? Do you have enough water?” No, we can’t afford to lose any more water. It’s getting late and we’ve already used most of it.
We discuss whether it would be wiser to walk back to the bushes or continue on the trail. Our planned camp by the lake isn’t far now and back down there is shade, but no water. “We should go on. Is it OK with you if we walk with you? Just in case?” They nod. “Of course it is.” André looks up. “Yes, let’s keep going,” he says. He’s looking a bit better now. “How are you now?” He tries to get up. He succeeds. “Fuzzy, whatever, let’s just go.” Slowly we walk on and together we look out for André. “I think you should eat something. Get some energy.” I give him a granola bar. That wasn’t a good idea. It comes right back out. Eating and drinking is still difficult. His stomach can’t handle it. “We’re almost at the top. We’ll leave this oven behind us forever,” I say to cheer him up. And sure enough; after an hour we reach camp where we meet a couple of Trail Angels. They see us coming and have André sit on a chair under the canopy of their RV. They give him water and a banana. They go down all right. We talk for a bit and then I put up the tent nearby. When I finish, I go back, thank them for their help and take André to the small lake close to the camp. We get in the water to cool down. He looks a lot better now, but he’s exhausted. We walk back to the tent. He crawls in, pulls the sleeping bag over his body, and falls asleep right away.
I am wide awake and still thinking about the story the Trail Angels just told us. It’s stuck in my mind. She said: “Last year a man died on that same path. He sat down to rest for a bit, but encouraged his young son to go on. “Go on, I’ll be right behind you,” he said. His son was reluctant, but slowly kept going up the hill. He stopped every now and then to look back. However, when his father didn’t catch up with him after an hour, he went back. He found his father on the same rock where he had left him. He had died.”
Chills go down my spine just thinking about it. This was a close call. Day one and he almost died… I can’t get the thought out of my mind. In my sleeping bag I listen to André. I hear a regular, comforting breathing. Thank God. I relax and slowly I start to feel sleepy too. I try to fight it so I can keep listening to André breathing, but I can’t. Relax Lian, he’s OK, he’s just sleeping. With that last thought I fall into a deep, restless sleep. This first day has really put us on edge. This was nothing like training on the warm island La Gomera. We have to be careful.
Two chapters from Part Two: High Altitude
Chapter: Bear in the Night
A full moon rises tonight. We watch in awe as the big red ball climbs slowly up into the sky; it’s an amazing sight to see. It isn’t completely dark yet, but even though the sun isn’t visible anymore, the hills and mountains in the distance still have a beautiful purple-orange glow. It’s seven o’clock at night, we leave Kennedy Meadows in good spirits and start our first six-mile hike towards the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The moon climbs higher and higher into the sky. The purple sky turns into a deep blue-grey color and the detailed outlines of the mountains disappear. There’s no need to switch on our headlamps. There is enough moonlight for us to see the trail and everything around us. We slowly ascend. All the other hikers are spending the night in Kennedy Meadows, so there are no distractions out here. It’s quiet and peaceful, serene even. Shadows dance around us playfully, and there are no distractions at all in this black-and-white landscape.
A twig snaps, there’s rustling in the bushes. Lian is alarmed instantly.
“I hear something. There! Something’s moving!” she calls out.
Right in front of us, in a small gully, we see a shadow moving. It shuffles towards us. The light of the moon is enough to see where we’re going, but not enough to see what’s out there. “I have no idea what that is. Let’s turn on our lights,” I say.
We get the headlamps out of the side pockets of our backpacks, fix them on our heads and turn on the lights.
“A bear!” Lian cries out in terror. A big, broad-shouldered black bear is crossing our trail, and he’s growling at us intensely. It’s getting pretty close and we can clearly see the outlines of its body. We shine our lights in its face. The bear’s eyes are wide open, and they reflect the light, like two giant, glowing glass marbles. We look it straight in the eye. It looks straight back at us and all three of us are completely still, frozen in this moment in time.
We start yelling,
“Hey bear, go away bear!”
“Go away bear!”
We grab our hiking poles and bang them together loudly, repeatedly. The bear lowers its head a bit, shakes it side to side and moves out of our lights slowly. Suddenly it takes off very fast and runs right into another gully. We can’t see it anymore, so we have no idea if it’s moving away from us or if it’s circling back around. Our hearts are in our throats.
“Hey bear! Go away bear!”
We shout until our voices are hoarse. There it is again, in the beam of one of our lights. Fortunately, the bear is now running away from us, up the hill. We follow it for as long as we can keep our lights on it.
We continue walking, cautiously, looking out to see if it follows us. A grizzly bear can occasionally follow you for days, to see if it can get a meal from you, or perhaps even turn you into a meal. It hardly ever happens though. Black bears don’t do that at all but you never know. Better safe than sorry.
The bear doesn’t show up again, but we keep shouting loudly in this otherwise silent night. We increase our pace and shine our lights everywhere. Lian keeps looking behind her, she doesn’t feel secure at all. We’re too scared to stop so we don’t set up camp for another hour. We’ve run into bears before, but always during the day and usually in an open environment, where there are escape routes for both us and the bears, so there was never any reason for tension between us. What an exciting nightly adventure! I doubt we’ll ever forget this and we certainly don’t want to repeat it ever again. Sometime later, we’re lying in our tent, still on high alert, reacting to every little sound we hear.
The next morning, after a restless night, this encounter made us laugh a little. It’s a funny thing; we took a bear-behavior training course in Alaska once, where we were taught by National Park Rangers how to deal with bears. Because of that, even though it’s not our native language, we shout at bears in English automatically. As if they could understand us better in English…
We spend the next few days walking in a transitional area. We’re getting higher and higher, and slowly but surely all the cacti and Manzanitas are replaced by tall pine trees. They are Bristlecone and Foxtail Pines, the oldest living beings on Earth. Some are more than four thousand years old. The landscape is surreal. Many of these pines are twisted in strange ways, like spirals. It’s like they’ve tried to follow the sun, around and around. Most of the trees don’t have much bark left on them. If you didn’t know any better, you would think that they’re either dead, or dying. You couldn’t be further from the truth; it is their natural form. Right next to their bare, sun-bleached beige wooden interior, there are dark-brown pieces of bark, with tiny twigs and needles on them. The tree takes its time to grow, and lives in its own momentum. It is amidst these ancient beings that we set up camp and marvel in amazement at everything we see.
Chapter: Rescue in the Snow
The lake is completely frozen, except around the edges. The only sound we can hear is the soft creaking of the small sheets of ice scuffing up against each other. Actually, it’s more like a soft ringing sound. We get a bit closer and see that this friction forges tiny crystals, standing straight up, like miniature ice peaks rising up from the lake. We feel like we’re in the Antarctic, instead of the Sierra Nevada.
A small gust of wind picks up the fresh snow and twirls it up into the air. Other than that, it is quiet, silent even. A lot of snow has fallen in the past couple of days. Almost every afternoon, around three o’clock, clouds start coming together, only to unleash rain and thunder a few hours later. Usually, we see it coming just in time to set up camp but sometimes, like when we were climbing Mather Pass, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Dark clouds quickly come together and there’s no shelter we can see anywhere. “Bang!!” The deep, loud thunder in the distance rolls over the rocky plains. We haven’t seen any lightning yet. In front of us, far ahead, is what looks like an amphitheater of mountains, which amplifies the sound of the thunder. It’s deafening and extremely humbling. It feels like we’re small, naked, and alone in this immense open landscape. There’s not a soul in sight. At the top of the resonating mountains we see the pass. Lian stops, looks at it and asks, “Shall we go on and take the pass or try to find emergency shelter somewhere?” Thick snow starts coming down from the sky and sticks to my pants. “I don’t know… It will take us an hour-and-a-half to get to the pass, and who knows what the conditions will be up there tomorrow,” I say doubtfully. It would be wise to find shelter here, but we’re high up in the mountains and we don’t see a safe place to make a shelter anywhere. “Bang!!” Out of nowhere, the overwhelming loudness of the thunder takes us by surprise. Like cannon fire it blasts right through us. Visibility starts to wane, which makes us even more cautious.
“This is no place to put up a tent. If it turns into a full-scale thunderstorm we’ll be blown to smithereens,” I say as I scan our surroundings. “There’s not even a ditch or a snow mound anywhere.” We’ve seen plenty of safe places to hide in the past few days, but there’s a fierce wind on this plain. Lian searches with me, her eyes fixed on the ground. “The snow is too thin to build our own wall,” she says. She looks at the map. “There are lots of ditches on the other side of the pass. It’s a lot steeper down there, and even further down there are trees. Maybe we can find a safe place there?” Our eyes lock and I nod in agreement. We decide to keep going. It doesn’t feel completely right, but it’s definitely not an option to stay here.
It doesn’t take us long to reach the foot of the wall and we keep climbing up towards the pass. The wind picks up even more. Bang!!! This time it’s ear-splitting and right next to us. Are we doing the right thing? The first lightning bolts shoot down from the sky. Until now, we hadn’t noticed the strange deep-pink-grey color of the clouds around us. My warm down-filled beanie is covered in snow and the warmth of my head is making it melt, so the down is getting wet. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? I pull the hood of my raincoat over the beanie. And it’s a good thing I do, because we haven’t even come halfway up the wall and the snow is coming down like crazy. We can’t call it a blizzard just yet, but the snow is flying into our faces horizontally now. I’m still not sure about this. We can’t see the pass anymore. “What do you think? Should we turn back?” I ask. Lian is carrying the altimeter; she looks at it and shakes her head. “No, if the height on this thing is still accurate, we’ll reach the pass in about half an hour,” she says. I like the sound of that, and with our raincoats pulled closed tightly around our bodies we climb the last few feet up to the pass.
Quickly, we make our way over the pass and it’s true: this side is steeper. The only problem is that there is a thick layer of snow here. On the other side we could still see parts of the trail, but here it’s nowhere to be seen! We turn on our smartphone and open the GPS app. Lightweight hiking is always about finding a balance between weight and necessities; it’s a matter of compromise. If we had been in the mountains guiding a group, there’s no doubt we would have brought more stuff. Like professional GPS equipment, that can always show us where we are, even in a deep crevasse that’s sealed off by plants and trees. Now we have no choice but to put our faith in a cell phone. The app is thinking… a detailed area map is loading… no signal yet… we wait… and there it is, finally, the red arrow. It’s found us, even under the thick snow-filled clouds, great! This probably saves us from making an emergency shelter in some shallow ditch. Just to be sure, we compare what’s on the screen to the shape of the terrain; it matches.
Nevertheless, we can’t see much in the snow, and it turns out that it’s not so easy to follow the trail with only an app to guide us. “I don’t like this at all,” I say to Lian. “What do you mean?” She turns around, her backpack facing the wind and walks closer to me. “I may be ‘Old School’ or whatever, but I prefer a map and compass to find my way in these circumstances. I’d rather rely on the contours of the terrain than on a red arrow pointing to a trail I can’t see.” She stays quiet, waiting for me to continue. “Let’s do this the old-fashioned way. I’ll draw lines on the real map, and that way I can lay out a course through the terrain using waypoints. I can’t really do that with this app. All I can do is follow the arrow and hope we’re following the trail. It’s not getting us anywhere and it’s draining our phone battery.” Lian knows exactly where I’m going with this and answers, “Let’s do that then.” I nod, draw the coordinates from the GPS onto the map and lay out a course. We’re heading for the tree line, that isn’t visible yet in the dense snowfall. My arm is stretched out in the exact direction we need to go. I hold the compass in my open hand, I look over the top of it and see Lian ahead of me. With my other arm I show her which way to go. She moves from side to side and when she’s perfectly aligned with my compass bearing, I signal her to stop. I walk over to her and we repeat the same process. It’s slow, but it feels right. It’s something we’ve done before, and we know it works well.
“What did you say?” Lian shouts to me from a distance. I look up from my compass. “I didn’t say anything!” I call back. She stops and listens, and suddenly she raises her head up. “I hear someone yelling!” My arm drops. Yelling? Now? In this weather? It must be the wind. I don’t hear anything. She points and says, “Over there!” I make a big cross in the snow with my feet, hoping I might find it again when we come back. Together we go in the direction she’s pointing. Now I hear it too, a faint call in the distance. We look around and from far away we can just make out a young woman running down the mountain. She keeps on screaming and shouting, and she’s coming straight towards us. There’s a terrified look on her face when she finally reaches us; her pupils are dilated, she’s sweating and panting and cries out, “I’m so happy to see you!” She’s completely wet from the melting snow and the sweat. Her open trail-runners aren’t waterproof, so her feet are soaking wet and she’s freezing cold. “What’s your name?” Lian asks. “Sweetums,” she answers, her face as white as a sheet. “Hi, Sweetums, we didn’t expect to run into anyone out here in these conditions. Are you okay?” Lian asks, putting her arm around the poor woman. “I’ve been looking for you for so long! I’m all alone and then the lightning started. I got so scared and didn’t know what to do. I found your tracks in the snow and started running like crazy to try to catch up to you.” Her words fall out of her mouth like a runaway train. She takes a quick breath and continues, “But after the pass, I lost your tracks. I couldn’t find the trail either and just decided to walk down, hoping to find you. I’ve been calling out to you for about half an hour.”
She’s clearly very upset. Lian talks to her and tries to comfort her. In the meantime, I’ve picked up my compass again. I’m never going to find my cross in the snow, so I lay out a new, more direct course down to the trees. I want to get her out of this weather as soon as possible. Together we make our way down, this time just winging it with the compass in my hands. It’s less accurate, but it’s a lot faster.
After about an hour we reach the tree line, and we soon find a nice semi-circle full of man-high pine trees. It’s still snowing quite heavily, but the trees break the wind, so it’s a good place to set up camp. Sweetums is exhausted, so we help her with her tent. She is a textbook example of an ‘ultra-light-weight-hiker’. Someone who covers super-long distances, carrying only the bare minimum. “It’s always sunny in California, so I left lots of things at home,” she tells us. It sounds a bit naïve to us. Warm sunny plains and beaches have nothing in common with the mountains. The mountains have their own weather systems, so you can never rule out snowfall in summer, especially at this altitude. We decide not to tell her this, because it wouldn’t do her any good right now.
She’s still very cold and she’s having trouble getting warm in her sleeping bag. A sleeping bag doesn’t produce any heat, it’s an insulator. It only captures the warmth that your body generates. When you cool down too much, or when you’re weak, you can still freeze to death in a good-quality sleeping bag. Her feet are ice-cold. She tried to save weight by not bringing any cooking equipment, so she’s living primarily on protein and granola bars. There’s nothing in her backpack to warm her up. I look at her; she looks exhausted, confused, freezing and she keeps falling in and out of consciousness. If I don’t do anything now, she might not make it through the night.
I use our own cooking gear to warm up a cup of coco for her, and she ends up drinking three of them. Immediately, she feels better. Her body is warming up, and her state of mind is definitely improving as well. Lian and I wait – in the falling snow – in front of her tent and make sure she keeps talking. She’s comfortable now in her sleeping bag, that’s getting increasingly warmer. She even laughs at my cheesy jokes and slowly she falls asleep. I wait a little longer, for my own peace of mind, until I hear her breathing regularly. Then I also go to bed.
The next day, she hikes down with us until we reach the snow line. We take a long break, dry out all our wet gear, and hang out our sleeping bags until they’re all fluffy again. After the break, Sweetums feels like herself again. In high spirits and with a big smile on her face, she parts with us. Her pace is clearly a lot higher than ours and we never run into her again on the trail. I wonder if she made it to the end. ×