Cascade Comradery - Sean Jansen

When it rains, it really does pour. Standing on the ridge above the monument, engulfed in absolute torrential rain soaked to the core. Rain and sleet were coming in horizontal. My hiker companion Tommy, “Walkie Talkie,” was a ways back and still stumbling after celebrating at the monument. And the surrounding yellow Larch trees weren’t going to offer any comfort seeing as I threw up on one the night before last. There was about an hour before dark with a little over 5 miles to hike until we got back to camp. I was nervous actually because I couldn’t play back in my head where we set up our tents. Then attempting to find those tents in the dark with sideways downpour, well it was nothing short of horrifying.

Rain gear just simply does not work in weather like this. Especially ultra-light raingear that has been carried for nearly six-months. Crumpled and not washed, while stuffed into and out of your backpack everyday. I was just wet and miserable and still shaking to the core. Not from temperature but just from completion. Now more than ever, all I wanted to do was just run to my tent, mummify myself in my hopefully dry sleeping bag and weep. But I had 5 miles to do in an hour unless I wanted to whip out the nearly dead headlamp and wonder around that way trying to find camp. Let alone wondering where, “Walkie Talkie,” drifted off to.

I knew while about half way back to the tent from the monument that if I stopped running/speed hiking that I would assuredly suffer from hypothermia. But with my head down and my headlamp still somewhat dimly guiding the way, I made it back those 5 miles while being able to find that side trail to our tents. Huddled beside a small grove of trees, they sat waiting perfectly dry. I dropped down all my wet clothes to bare skin and jumped into my sleeping bag shivering, yelling, “Walkie!” In a slow elongation hoping to trigger a response.

He made it, saying he could see the light from my tent and found camp that way. His headlamp was nearly dead, and he was slurring from the frigid temperatures numbing his lips. We curled into our tents not saying an entire word to each other the rest of the night while neither of us slept. Not from the overwhelming sensation of completion, but from the hurricane like winds slapping the rain fly on our tents and the deep moan from the swaying of trees nearby from the storm. A tossing and turning effect of the billion thoughts rushing through your mind as well like a recreated scene from a horror film.

Hitting the reverse button for about two weeks though, it all started with a fresh re-supply. Sitting there in front of the Chevron station in Snoqualmie, Washington, having already packed, I watching my fellow hiker trash companions around the public picnic table pack there belongings. However, with 250 miles left on our saga of footsteps and near famine, my stomach churned. I remembered seeing rather somber faces on my hiker companions, simply realizing that the trail is now only about two weeks long. And that some of these somber faces around the table, I was seeing for the last time. It already kind of started a couple re-supplies back, but this one made me feel it.

The emotional strings that this trail evokes are something similar to the scene in that Indiana Jones film. Where the native rips out the others heart. The start back on the border of California and Mexico was this heart-warming enchantment of what almost seemed like a trail to your dreams; a golden pathway if you will. But now sitting here in Northern Washington, with a small amount left after all you’ve done is somewhat of a catch twenty-two.

This part of the trip, trail, and life-changing journey was without question the hardest bit of all. An emotional battle of tug-of-war. Some of these companions I’ve known for just a few weeks. While some I’ve known from the start, 2,400-miles back, two states ago. Walkie was one I met in the Sierra. And I, along with the other hikers I had met will all say that falling in love with someone on trail takes little to no effort, it just happens. You are all there with the common goal of reaching that monument no matter what other complications there may be. Therefore everyone had a shared interest. Battered physically, mentally and emotionally, but on our two feet pushing northward. Wanting that monument, proving to ourselves and those that follow back at home that the last 5 months had been worth it.

Before our arrival into the North Cascades, the rumors of the region were similar to that of the Swiss Alps. However, there is one thing I vividly remember about the Cascades more so than that of the Sierra or any other part of the trail. Since Mexico, it had been a roller coaster of uphill and down. Some of the climbs were mellow, and some of the descents were knee shattering. But there was truly nothing more grueling than a vertical assault of a Cascade climb. A 20-mile day meant at least 6,000 feet of climbing as well as that in descent. It made for unfathomable views, but exhaustion beyond thought possible.

The scenery was always worth every singe huff and puff, curse word, and muffled grunt while attempting to breathe. While hiking upward, every time you’d peer above, all you saw was just trail. Trail, continuing in the thick of a green tunnel of trees and your friends pushing in front of you. No sight of a clearing or blue skies at all. But that often was just the start of concern. There were always two climbs a day. There had to be if we were to at all accomplish our goal of finishing to the monument with the little weather window we had.

Stress was a new player on trail. At the start, the feelings were more of joy, and freedom. Release from the daily grind of 9-5’s and bills. The reason why most of us started the trail to begin with. This new stress however, at the top of a 3,000-foot climb, with a ticking time bomb that is the fast approaching winter was really not the most enjoyable. Goodness me the beauty was there though. Every climb led you to a new shape of granite with spires shooting up as if they were blades, stabbed from the core of the earth penetrating outward. Always accompanied with a lake or steam, literally using no effort at all with advertising to entice us to stay and collapse after a day of endurance roller coasting.

Hiking into the dark at the end of the day and waking up pre-sunrise to start it was standard procedure. A new procedure in the day-to-day antics; a prerequisite for the full time position as a thru-hiker at this stage of the trail. Daylight saving time was killing Walkie Talkie and I. It just seemed like the time hiking was non-stop and the time for lunch and breaks flew by. Taking in the surrounding epicness of the scenery was sadly short lived. I was never a fan of hiking at night because of the fear of missing out on incredible landscapes, but neither of us had winter hiking gear.

Positivity was also a hard concept often times. There are variables that one couldn’t foresee in happening on trail. And when these moments happen, staying well minded was a difficult task. Situations such as: accidentally leaving your solar panel on a log at the bottom of a climb that you just did, bending your hiker pole doing the same routine you’ve been doing from the start, rain when the forecast didn’t call for it, Ibuprofen just simply deciding that it doesn’t want to work anymore, and ultimately getting one of the worst sicknesses of your life 100-miles before the monument.

Lake Chelan in the North Cascades National Park was a beacon in a storm. I thought I was lucky for getting sick at a re-supply. Because I couldn’t imagine what it could be like on trail to be completely firing at both ends, while also trying to get miles done. With waking up the next day thinking I was feeling better and deciding to hit the trail, It was only 20 miles to Rainy Pass and our last real re-supply before the monument. And well, I wasn’t feeling any better. My nightmare of a sickness on trail became a very harsh reality. With what should have only taken a day to complete to Rainy Pass, took three. Stumbling, pausing with my head between my legs, and screaming curse words at the top of my lungs from frustration. Walkie hiked on to town without me and waited, while I lay and rest praying for health.

Making it to the highway to hitch to town feeling better was always a cause for celebration. Getting to a town was such a luxury that we all took advantage of what we could before hitting the trail again. At this stage: a large pizza, bottle of red, and a room at a hostel were almost king worthy to us. And that’s exactly what most of us did. Relaxing, drinking, being lazy, and creating what could only be the most legendary re-supply any thru-hiker has ever done. Packing items that one never thought was either possible or smart to pack: whiskey, wine, champagne, fried chicken, and icing just to name the popular items. But with all the comfort food and drink in the world, that didn’t mean the weather wanted to comfort us as well.

Accepting the fact that we are going to have to hike through rain and also finish in it, was a real let down. We were already seeing our friends photos on Social Media who had finished just days to hours previously in nice sunny weather. The long term forecast was questionable as well so we had to do what we’ve always done since mile one, put our heads down and hike.

It was raining all day long. And it turned out that the sickness I had never really went away. The small spoonful of icing I had shortly after dinner was projectiled and made an emergency landing on one of the beautiful yellow Larch Trees. It was approximately 60 miles before the monument, and once there, there are two exit strategies. One can cross into Canada through Manning Park, or you can hike back 30 miles to a dirt road and hitch hike back. For some odd reason, Walkie and I decided to hike back after the monument for it seemed like a quicker way out despite it being another full day on trail.

The final day of the trip promised to be exactly what was forecasted, rain. The rain was incessant, constant, and always present. But the last miles to the monument were that of slow motion. It was all coming to fruition, right there a couple miles before Canada. I was already coming to tears as I walked in torrential rain, nearly hours from completion. We said nothing to one another for a while on our descent to the monument. I heard every single raindrop and footstep that we made. There was a clearing up ahead with a switchback, and once Walkie got there, he turned and looked at me jumping up and down with his hiker poles thrown up in the air saying, “I can see it, I can see it!” He then bolted, took off running the 50 yards to the monument. I saw it and just stood at the switchback bursting into tears at its sight.

Slowly walking closer and closer as it seemed for me that every footstep took an enormous amount of energy just to get within reach of it. And once I reached out to touch it, I couldn’t help but break down further. I ran over and gave Walkie a massive hug with backpacks on, not caring at all about the non-stop rain. I then threw my pack aside and stood there straddling the U.S. and Canada border in downpour, just letting it engulf me, realizing that it was all over.

After we made it back to our camp and eventually hitchhiked back to town, Walkie and I parted ways. He went back home and started himself a family and I decided to head to a stretch of coast along California and call it home. In fact, everyone went there separate ways shortly after finishing. But everything is different, different in the most amazing way. From the simplicity of a coffee shop, to making yourself breakfast with an actual stove, the appreciation and gratitude that I learned from hiking this beast of a trail known as the Pacific Crest Trail is something I’ll forever be grateful for. I miss terribly all the stars that I hiked and laughed with. From struggling to climb Forester Pass in the Sierra to laughing over poop conversations, the other thru-hikers on this trail are the only reason I was even able to finish it myself.

But with what I thought would be the most depressing thing about finishing turned out to be one of the greatest blessings. I may not see the companions that I spent time with on trail, but we really do all stay in contact. And it is the sheer joy of a simple email, message, or even a text that can shoot even the dullest day into the brightest. And that to me is without question the most important gift the trail gave me, the memory of comradery.

I set off from Campo, California on April 13th at around 2 pm. I finished the trail on October the 10th at 1:20pm. Five months and 27 days or 180 days total: 2,650.10 trail miles, 2,781.16 total miles hiked, 253 trout caught, 46 passes hiked over, hitch hiked 39 times, lost 34 pounds, got 27 days of rain, took 22 showers, used 15 fuel canisters, stayed in 11 hotels, eight campgrounds, took seven buses, got snowed on six times, went through five pairs of shoes, saw three bears, climbed three mountains, stayed in three houses, two days below freezing, and one life changing adventure.

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