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The Day Before The Last Day

When we woke up in the morning our tent was frozen. The inside appeared to be covered in condensation but upon closer investigation it was clear that every water droplet was frozen solid. The tarp was stiff and basically impossible to fold up. We hurried away our dry gear into our packs and figured out how to separate it from the rest of our wet cold gear. We were up earlier than anyone else, which was normal at that point, and I was glad we had gotten out of our tent when we did because right as we started moving it began to rain on us. Just a nice early morning treat. Had it been raining when we had woken up it would have been much harder to get moving. We made it over Methow Pass, which had been our original target for the day before but neither of us had felt like camping at a saddle in such inclement weather. On top of the pass was one sad tent, weathering the storm all alone in the middle of an open unsheltered field. We walked by it, heads down, rain beading off of our coats.

As we descended the rain seemed to let up a little bit, and we were happy to discover we weren’t too crazy wet yet. That was until we had to walk through a couple of open fields of wet brushy scrub. Then we were plenty wet. We stopped for a break near a creek, which was cut short by the appearance of more rain. Kyle confessed his knee was in an immense amount of pain. We had another climb ahead of us and the top out elevation was up around 7,000 feet. We headed up a large valley, switchbacking for endless miles and as we neared the top and lost our tree cover the rain turned to snow. It was a bit of a shock at first, and seemingly better, because snow is a little bit less drenching than rain. But damn it was cold. Heading in one direction the snow was pelting us in the face and then we would turn a switchback and it would be blowing along behind you, pressing the cold clammy fabric of your rain jacket into your wet skin. Not pleasant. Finally we reached the top and began to head along a ridge and found ourselves staring into at an unexpected friend. The sun had come out on the other side of the pass, frequently blotted out by quick-moving clouds, but occasionally blessing us with a couple of seconds of reprieve from the cold. We started to head down and finally, in what looked like a sufficiently long sun break, we decided to sit down in the trail, eat something, and try to dry off a little bit. Our black rain gear dried quickly in the sun and my shoes were soon damp instead of soaked. At that moment I felt like if we just had a couple of moments like this we could make it through whatever else the weather threw at us. When enough clouds came in, making the sun less reliable, we moved on.

The sun continued to break through the clouds intermittently as we made our way down to our next water source, an incredible spring that came gushing out of a high alpine meadow. While we were there rock fall boomed above us and a layer of clouds gathered and started spitting rain. We kept moving. The landscape was stunning now that we could see it. We walked above deep valleys, larches stood out against the dark green carpet, a brilliant yellow. The light touched the peaks in a way that seemed sacred. Our next stop was Harts Pass, the last road we would see until we walked into Canada. The weather continued to worsen as we climbed and by the time we reached the pass we were walking through a carpet of fresh snow, thick flakes swirled around us, obscuring the far away from view. We were freezing cold, soaking wet, and our feet were numb. Part of me felt completely amazed at what the weather was doing and how beautiful it was, another part of me felt very scared. When we got to Harts Pass we headed into the pit toilet for shelter and stripped off all of our wet gear. It was unlikely it would dry but it felt good not to be wearing it. I forced Kyle to eat something, offering him one of our favorite snacks, some Cheese O’s, which he ripped open, spilling about half of them on the ground. Much cursing ensued.

We discussed our options. Should we get off trail? It was one of those unbelievably hard moments. I was scared, for our feet, for the possibility of worse weather than we had already seen, for hypothermia. Without cellphone service we had no way of knowing if things would improve or get worse and regardless, these were the mountains, they didn’t follow rules or forecasts. However, when we thought about it logically we knew that we had a shelter we could set up any time we needed too, our sleeping bag was dry, our spare clothes were dry, we had food and fuel and water. We could get dry and warm at some point, any point really, if we needed to. If we didn’t think about it but just felt we also knew we were only a day and a half from Manning Park. From finishing. Despite our fears and our concerns we put our wet rain gear back on, gathered up our things, and headed back out into the swirling white.

About fifteen minutes out from Harts Pass Kyle shouted up to me, “We are making a smart decision, right?” I turned around, laughing, and said, “Hell no, we aren’t making the smart decision! The smart decision would have been to get off trail, to take zero risks, to never have hiked at all!” The honest truth is we had a little bit of that summit fever. Only this kind of summit fever was a fever born of months of hiking. Of not quitting a million times when we wanted to. Of being so close to something that had been so far away for so long. Through the haze of wanting to finish I could see that we weren’t making a super dangerous decision, that we were definitely taking a risk and pushing ourselves beyond where we had gone before, that I was pretty sure we would be fine. But still, the question lingered, was this a smart decision? Or would we live to regret it?

Luckily we got our answer pretty quickly. We kept hiking, very quickly to keep up our body warmth and we checked in on each other constantly. Eventually, after about an hour of rapid hiking we were both warm again, even our feet had feeling in them as they sloshed around. And then, like some sort of a miracle, the sun started to break through the thick clouds again, bathing us in a warm golden glow for seconds at a time. Everything was covered in fresh powder, white and delicate and dripping in the suns warmth. By the time we were filling up water before camp we were actually pretty dry, except our feet which were battling mud puddles every step. We made it to camp without getting wet again and set everything up under a clearing sky. We changed and ate and hopped into the tent to stars overhead. It was freezing cold. Our breath was thick in the air and even all of our clothes weren’t enough to keep us warm. We wore our downs to sleep, hoods up, sleeping bag wrapped around us.

What was our last night in our tent like? Well we were plagued by mice for the first time on the entire trip, who were disappointed by the scarcity of food. We were cold all night, our sleeping bag slowly loosing its loft as our body heat fluffed it from below and condensations dampened it from above. Our breath froze in layers on the inside of the tent, creating sheets of ice. We slept restlessly, with nausea in the pit of our stomachs because the next day was our last day.

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