North Cascades National Park, WA

I’ve never smoked a single cigarette in my life, but after a day and a half in North Cascades National Park this past week, I think I know what it feels like to be a pack-a-day smoker.

I returned to Washington after a brief visit to my home state of Pennsylvania to celebrate the wedding of two very good friends to find ash raining from the sky.  My friend and former roommate Caleb, a resident of the greater Seattle area, made a grumbling remark about how it reminded him of the Mount St. Helen’s eruption as I picked up my ash-covered car from his house.  Nearby wildfires were causing smoke and ash to fill the skies of Washington, and, on the dates of this publication, over 7.8 million acres currently burn across the United States.  The drive to North Cascades National Park from Port Orchard, WA was only about four hours, but I decided to wait until after rush hour to leave, so as to not get caught in Seattle traffic on I-5.  This is an important point to note, as the majority of my drive north to my campground in Newhalem was in the dark, and I could not fully comprehend the magnitude of the wildfire smoke at night.  I arrived at my campsite after 10:30 p.m., unrolled my sleeping back in the back of my car, and laid down for the night.  It was not until I awoke that I began to see how pervasive the smoke was across the mountain range, but for some incomprehensible reason, I did not think much of it at the time.  This was my first error of the day.

The internet had informed me that the Sourdough Mountain Trail, a 10.4 mile, out-and-back hike, was the most difficult in the Park, but consequently offered the most spectacular views.  Sourdough Mountain is essentially all uphill climbing, with over 5000 feet of elevation gain in 5.2 miles, mostly in the form of brutal switchbacks.  Lacing up my well-worn boots, lathering on the SPF-50, and filling my hydration bladder to its full 3-liter capacity, I snatched up my hiking poles and began to climb.  After spending six days away from my road trip, doing nothing more but some unencumbered city walking in Philly, I wanted to dive back into hiking with a real challenge.  This was my second error of the day.

On the way up the trail, I passed a handful of couples, ranging in age from their mid-30s to early-50s, and trudged right on past them.  I could drink water from my bladder on the fly, and had made up my mind not to take many breaks.  “I have a good momentum going,” I told myself, “I don’t need to stop!”  It was a solid two hours of uphill climbing before I paused for a breather and a quick bite to eat, and then straight back to climbing.  I had tackled 13, 14, and 15-mile hikes in the past, and a measly 10.4 wasn’t going to beat me.  This was my third error of the day.

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Though the trail was mostly through thick forest, it was evident through most of the clearings that the smoke was becoming thicker as I climbed.  I’d started the hike at 9:00 a.m., however, and the sun had not yet reached its zenith at this point in the climb.  I was confident it would cut through the smoke and allow for a clear view of the mountain range and the unnervingly-named Diablo Lake, thousands of feet below.  The last half mile of the hike takes you up above the treeline, and a couple I passed just before this section decided to turn around due to the smoky conditions.  I’d come this far in my first hike in a week, and had no intention of even entertaining the idea of turning around.  I tore into another Clif Bar and forged ahead, onward and upward.  This was my fourth error of the day.

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After a series of seemingly endless switchbacks, the end of the hike comes into view:  Sourdough Lookout, an old, shuttered-up building at the top of the mountain.  Even in early September, there still exist small patches of snow at this elevation, and the rock formations hint at the presence of glaciers many years ago.  At this elevation with the smoke growing thicker by the minute, I began to struggle to get a deep breath.  Having hiked on much higher peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, I thought the altitude couldn’t be that much of a factor, and that I must have just pushed myself too hard up the preceding switchbacks.  I was determined to summit this mountain and complete this hike.  This was my fifth, and final error of the day.

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About ten minutes into my ascent to the top, I saw that I must be only a quarter mile from my goal.  However, breathing was becoming more difficult by the second, and I sat for a moment on a few rocks to gather myself.  Laying down on the ground, I was unable to capture a moment’s respite, as a swarm of yellow jackets accosted me from every direction.  No amount of swatting or flailing was successful in impeding their onslaught, and I stood up to continue onwards.  Just then, I collapsed, unable to support my own weight.  My legs had gone numb and I was dangerously light-headed.  Reaching for my hiking poles for support, I discovered that my arms were also going numb, which caused me to begin to panic, at which time I vomited repeatedly.  It did not take me long to realize that most of the water I had consumed on the way up the trail had now been extricated from my body, and that dehydration was becoming a serious concern.  Gasping and wheezing for air, all of the errors of the day began to crystallize into one terrifying “Oh, s**t” moment.  To my great surprise and inconceivable luck, two hikers, a couple in their 30s, came across me on the trail and inquired as to my state of health.  I could barely tell them my name, it was so difficult to breathe, and as they furnished me with a wet washcloth to hold over my mouth and nose, we three began to descend the mountain.  My rescuers, Matt and Eva, the former from Massachusetts and the latter from Germany (both now living in Boston), escorted me down the entire length of the mountain.  Just over halfway down, it became significantly easier to breathe, and we began to swap traveling stories, discuss work and living situations, and generally enjoy one another’s company.  I honestly don’t know how I would have made it the five miles back down the mountain without the assistance and moral support of Matt and Eva, and on the off chance they are reading this post, please know how deeply I appreciate your help.

Reaching my car (at last!), I bid my saviors farewell and began to drive back to my campsite, only to feel the need to pull over and, once again, throw up what remained of the day’s water consumption.  It was then that I resolved that I would be leaving North Cascades National Park first thing the following morning, cutting my three days of plans in the Park to just one.  I’m sure the Park, just like the other 58, offers a beautiful array of natural experiences and sights to be had, but I was more than ready to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, drive to Canada, and book a hotel for the night.

I will mention that I did not take many photos on the hike, for obvious reasons, and those that are contained within encompass all of the pictures taken.  I did, on at least two occasions, fall almost completely off the trail on the way down, covering my legs with a thick layer of dirt and dust, and the contrast of my de-socked foot with my upper leg is somewhat comical…

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