I was invited to join Ella, Clare, and Morgan on a hike to the Canadian Border to see Ella off on her attempt to set the fastest known self-supported hike of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was a remarkable trip best characterized as a party where the guests happened to walk 60 miles.
Driving up to Harts Pass with a full car had the feeling of a road trip. There was fast moving conversation, shallow and deep. Laughter. Dating advice. Everyone had brought enough snacks for everyone so of course, only the donuts got eaten. Pouring water from a wide mouth container to a small mouth container is difficult while traveling a high speeds.
From Harts Pass, we hiked in about seven miles along easy, beautiful single-track crossing lush hillsides. The Cascade peaks and ridges guarded the western horizon. August is prime hiking season and natural beauty was on full display.
We set camp around an hour before sundown in a flat spot where, on my Anacortes Crossing – Castle Pass misadventure a group of female hikers had left a disheveled, depleted me with a distinct feeling that I wasn’t welcome (admittedly I shuffled past holding an ice axe like an axe murder). Much better company this time. Ella and Clare bivvied and so were eaten by mosquitoes. By the time Morgan had zipped up her tent, so many mosquitoes had gotten inside that she had to shake out their corpses in the morning. I my dining apparel was a rainsuit and headnet.
Saturday was spent meandering along the well kept single-track of the PCT, taking inordinate numbers of pictures both of nature and of each other, and chatting about god knows what. The primary game became that we had to take a pictures of each subset of the four of us. The individual pictures were done as Hikertrash Vogue with Clare as photographer and Ella as Art Director.
One high point of the day (certainly by elevation) was where we ate lunch. The trail had been easy and so we had full energy to enjoy it. I discovered that the beer cans I’d packed out (provided by Morgan, many thanks) had kept the night’s cool under the the insulating effects of the quilt where they’d sequestered themselves.
By about 5pm we’d meandered our way as far as the monument marking the northern terminus of the PCT at the Canadian border. The spot is small and not really level enough for good camping. Ross was expected to meet us there from the Canadian side but were weren’t quite sure if he’d show up (bets were taken), much less where he’d camp. Just as we were deciding on a cut-off time to eat dinner without him, Ross appeared in the little clearing. After an exultant round of salutations, he lead us off to a wonderful campsite less than a kilometer across the border. As we settled in for dinner, he produced a small container of maple syrup for each of us. My contribution to the evening was a previously unused decade old tube of DEET based purchased by my mother when I hiked a section of the PCT in 2010.
The big day started just before 2am when Ella woke us up and we marched back to the border to see her off. After farewells, Ella took off uphill, over blowdowns, at a very brisk walk. We watched her headlamp twinkle like a fairy through the trees, zig-zagging upwards. It’s beam would illuminate the clear-cut along the border each time the switchback got close to it. Eventually the light disappeared and we went back to bed.
At 4:30am, my alarm went off. We had 30 miles back to the car and from there, five hours of driving. It didn’t have to be a hard day, but it had to be a long day. And it had to start now. Everyone was a good sport, taking food bars for breakfast on foot. I started to bid a potentially sleeping Ross adieu through his tent wall and he told me to stop because he’d get up and give us good by hugs.
We passed a south-bound thru-hiker starting their PCT hike. We ate breakfast where we’d lunched the day before and Morgan pointed out that I could mix Ross’s maple syrup into my oatmeal.
We tended to hike two together and one apart. We’d now been together long enough that it was nice to have some time alone. The day had a calmer feel, but there was an underlying tension thinking that Ella had walked this same dirt just hours before at a furious pace.
The closing miles were almost golden in the late afternoon sun. Clare racked up them up at speed, headphones in. Morgan and I took it easy. Her “big toe was eating her little toe” and had been for some time. We stopped to chat with a family inculcating a love of the outdoors into their late-elementary school age daughters and we did our best to talk up backpacking.
Clare was changed and ready to go by the time we got back to the car and ran down to us in blue dress reminiscent of The Sound of Music. There were still hours of daylight. We were footsore and happy to sit again. We took it all in and snacked. Ella had only been 60% done with her day’s miles when she’d passed the car. It was hard not to think of that.
I followed Ella’s tracker all week with what felt like the anxious tension of the closing minutes of a super bowl. It turns I was giving myself mild food poisoning with breakfast each morning which heightened the effect (maybe you can’t cook sausage in the microwave?). She kept on pace at about 50 miles and 10,000ft of gain per day over sections of trail which haven’t seen a trail crew this year. The day after reaching Stevens Pass, her tracker didn’t start, there was unexpected rain in the mountains, and I privately texted Ross a timeline for calling search and rescue. I needn’t have. A mutual friend who went out for a run that evening saw her descending from Kendall Katwalk. She made it to Snoqualmie Pass with 5 minutes before the gas station which held her resupply package closed.
Ella’s high spirits and playful nature hide a forceful will. Her FKT attempt ended at White Pass when she was unable to carry weight on one foot, having covered the last miles using hiking poles as crutches. From there she hitched home after having been passed by hikers who didn’t stop to help her. When I visited a few days later to drop off some belongings she’d left in my car, her leg was in a boot and, unable to walk, she would throw her keys out the window so people could let themselves up.
Some friends you keep because they show you a good time. Some friends you keep because they inspire and challenge you. Some friends you keep because they show you the terrifying, humbling price of truly finding your limits.