This was a really difficult post to write. I've been sitting on this trail report for a while. At the time I originally wrote this post, it had taken me a couple of weeks to process the entire experience so I am going to try to share what I can at the risk of putting myself out there for criticism and being labeled a "wimp" by some. So, here goes.
I have wanted to do the Wonderland Trail for the past two years and found a hiking partner from one of the local hiking forums. We put in for permits for the end of September thinking the past couple of years the weather has been super nice and figured our odds of getting permits would be better if we waited until after Labor Day. We got our permits and promptly continued with our preparations. For me, I was working on getting miles in and getting my kit dialed in. My hiking partner was also doing the same.
We left Portland on the morning of September 21st, 2013 with the plan to arrive at Longmire to pick up our permit, then head to Sunrise where we would park the car and hike in to our first campsite 1.3 miles down the trail at the Sunrise Camp.
On arrival at Longmire we were told by the park rangers to expect three days of bad weather (rain and definitely snow in the higher elevations) and then things should start looking up. This was before the typhoon weather-front had hit the coast, which as we now know, changed the weather drastically in a short period of time. This is the same weather that foiled more than a few PCT thru-hiker plans. I figured I could handle a few days of wet weather if it meant the rest was going to be okay. We arrived at Sunrise in the early afternoon and it was socked in. Not a view of anything but a lot of low lying clouds and a few tourists trying to make the best of the situation. We geared up and walked the 1.3 miles to the Sunrise Camp, elevation 6245'. We set up camp and soon after it started raining. I was dead tired from having gotten very little sleep at home the night before so I took a nap in my hammock. It felt good to listen to the rain hitting my tarp while I snoozed. I woke up feeling refreshed and made dinner under my hammock/tarp while it was still raining. Since it was late fall, night came quickly so after dinner and a quick outhouse stop (which by the way, smelled horrible!), I was back in the cocoon of my hammock and fell asleep with no problems.
The morning of the 22nd we woke to more rain and remnants of snow from the night before. It was cold and wet, which I'll admit are not exactly motivating factors for me. We made breakfast, packed up and headed out. The first 3.5 miles were all downhill to the White River Campground where we took an extended snack break and used flushing toilets for the last time. We spoke with more rangers who gave us the same weather information and we were also monitoring the barometric pressure on my hiking partner's High Gear Weatherport. We continued on a fairly level part of the trail for another 2.5 miles before the trail started to gradually go up. At this point it really started to rain. This is where I made some bad choices which I would later regret. I had taken my rain pants off (I rarely even bring them but for some reason I did on this trip) at lunch because I was getting hot and my soft shell pants usually do a good job of repelling water. I also had decided to use my trekking poles instead of my umbrella. Another error I would make that would cause issues later on. After lunch we continued heading up towards Summerland, coming across a few other hikers who told us they had seen a black bear on the switchbacks across the stream up the trail. I wasn't worried because I have the worst wildlife mojo of anyone and knew we wouldn't see the little fella since they already had. (I was right...aside from bushy tailed woodrats at the Summerland Shelter, we saw no other interesting wildlife)
As we continued to climb up the switchbacks, I started getting more and more soaked. The rain was coming down pretty hard with no end in sight. My rain jacket was doing a decent job but I think I was sweating so much I was soaking myself from the inside out. I had an Icebreaker mid-weight wool layer on underneath and it was completely soaked by the time we got to camp, as was the synthetic t-shirt I was wearing under that. My feet were soaked as well. My soft shell pants were rather damp too. Do you see where I am going with this?
We got to the shelter at Summerland, elevation 6000', and had planned to set up our sleep systems in it but found two other backpackers who had permits for the shelter, which we thought was odd since the rangers had told us we could camp there if we needed to. They agreed to share the shelter with us and I got out of my wet layers, put my thermal bottoms on with my rain pants over them and put my down puffy on plus dry socks/shoes to try and get warm. I left all my wet stuff hanging in the shelter in the hopes it might get dry (yeah right!) or at the very least, less wet. It took me a while to get my brain to work properly since I was shivering and having trouble putting my thoughts into words. With the help of one of the guys at the shelter, I was able to get my tarp and hammock set up outside the shelter area and I went in it as soon as possible to try to get warm (my hand warmers helped a little bit). I took a nap for about 2 hours, gaining some warmth but still feeling chilled to the core. I knew eating and getting hot beverages inside me would help, so I made dinner and from that, I was able to get a little bit warmer. It became dark quick and after finishing my meal and cleaning up, I went back to my hammock to try to sleep and continue my quest to get warm. Everyone else had vacated the shelter due to the presence of some really adorable (and probably hungry) bushy tailed woodrats. My hiking partner had set her tent up outside of the shelter and the other two guys had set up at a site up the hill near the composting toilet.
The next morning, September 23rd, we woke to more snow (not really sticking but it was there) and what looked like minimal visibility to Panhandle Gap a mere 800' further in elevation from where we were camped. One of the guys we shared our campsite with had gotten lost up there the day before and had to use his GPS to find his way and I was getting worried. I had two concerns. One, that we would have issues finding our way due to visibility and two, if we continued and I got even more wet, I would get hypothermic and we would be far, far away from any kind of help. To be honest, my gut was also telling me not to continue. I had a really bad feeling I couldn't put into words, but there was something about continuing that seemed like a bad idea.
I wrapped my feet in plastic from a cheap, "Dollar Tree" dropcloth I had brought to put underneath my hammock. I cut out out 2, 2X2' pieces and wrapped each foot like a burrito before putting my wet wool socks back on (wool really does retain it's warming properties when wet!) and then put those back into my wet hiking shoes (Keen Dry SUCKS!). I put my still wet Smartwool mid-weight layer back on, then my softshell pants, rain pants and gaiters to complete the ensemble. Trekking poles went in the pack, umbrella came out and we headed back to Sunrise. I had more clothes in the car I could add to my pack and we could get a revised weather forecast as the barometer was starting to drop again. We went back down the trail to the road and were fortunate to hitch a ride with a guy out for a drive. We arrived at Sunrise to find the lot mostly empty, with a few cars here and there.
We hopped in the car, turned on the heater and I started shedding wet layers and added some warm, dry clothes from my stash in the car. We headed back towards Longmire, stopping at White River, but the Ranger Station was closed. We continued to Longmire and found out the weather forecast had changed. They were predicting several more days of rain. Hmmm. At this point I was ready to call it, but my hiking partner wanted to continue. So I compromised and offered to pay for a hotel for the night to dry out, regroup, and then set out the next morning. We decided to alter our itinerary so we would start at Narada Falls the following day, and figure out a way to get from Sunrise to our car later. (I put the word out on NWHikers FB page and a generous hiker agreed to help us out. I love the hiking community!).
We went back to Ashford and got a room at the Whittaker Bunk House for a reasonable price. I went over to Whittaker Mountaineering and got a few things to keep me warmer on the trail (btw, they have a great selection of gear at reasonable prices!). We had a delicious burger at a dive bar in Elbe, then back to the hotel to crash for the night.
The next morning, we drove to Narada Falls, set out for Paradise River and set up camp for the night. The weather held and it didn't start raining until almost after dinner. Yay! We had a group of Road Scholars stop at our campsite for lunch and I chatted them up a bit (continuing to earn my trail name of Chatterbox), asking them questions about their trip, answering questions they had about mine, and deflecting the ire of the group leader who clearly thought we were stupid to be on the Wonderland Trail this late in the season.
On the morning of the 25th, we got started again, heading to Longmire to pick up our cache and check the weather report. At this point, I felt like I had given a good effort on this trail, but my heart was not in it. I told my hiking partner that if the weather forecast was showing three or four more days of rain, I wasn't interested in continuing and putting myself (and her) at risk. We were supposed to go past Indian Henry Hunting Ground and from what I could tell, there was going to be minimal visibility. I had proper gear on this stretch, but spending four days or more with soggy feet with no way to get anything dry was not something I was not looking forward to, not to mention the fact I still had not seen the mountain. She agreed that we would call the trip if this was the case. We lucked out and had no rain the entire walk to Longmire. On arrival, I checked out the weather forecast and with the exception of possible sunshine the next day, it was rain, rain, rain, oh and more rain plus snow in the higher elevations. We called it.
I tried to hitch from Longmire and had no luck so we started back to our vehicle at Narada Falls. Eventually, we came to another trailhead and we were able to hitch a ride with a couple of friends out sightseeing. We made it back to Portland by late afternoon.
This was probably one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make, coupled with the fact I made some big errors in what I brought with me for clothing. My sleep system (Hennessy Hyperlite Hammock with 20F quilts) and tarp (OES MacCat Deluxe) were perfect. My stove (MSR Micro Rocket) and cook kit were perfect. My food was just the right amount. My water filter system (Sawyer Squeeze) was perfect. My pack (Gossamer Gear Mariposa) performed flawlessly. I'll be honest, even though I am from the PNW and used to hiking and backpacking in the rain, the weather around Mt. Rainier got me good. I don't know if changing my clothing at the beginning would have changed the outcome much. The forecast and eventual weather from the typhoon brought continual precipitation the following week. Coupled with the fact the government shut down would have started the day we were to come off the trail, this helped me come to term with the decision to stop was right. I am not sure how we would have gotten off the trail at Sunrise and back to our car at Narada Falls (even with our arranged ride). At the time I was doubting myself, but in the end, after a little perspective, I know I made the right decision, as painful as it was. And besides, Mount Rainier will still be there next year, and I can try again. I'd rather be safe and live to hike another day, than stubborn and die being stupid.
Have you ever experienced something similar? Did you have regrets? Were you comforted by your decision afterwards?