May 13 (~09:15 – ~14:30)
Susie Lake – Glen Alpine Junction (0.6 mi / Total: 1102.2 mi) (+ 4.0 mi to Fallen Leaf Fire Station)
Total PCT miles: 714.4
Weather: More and more sun during the day.
By the time early morning appears, my sight has been reduced to a constant haze through tears and anguish. I’ve spent the majority of the night awake, and only the last few hours I was able to fall asleep for a short amount of time, before a rush of tears would wake me, forcing me up with its unrelenting burn. Somehow, the sunburn of my eyes has come hand in hand with a cold, and I’ve been blowing my nose next to wiping tears all night.
When I hear voices I know it’s time. I manage to get out of my tent and walk through a blur of pain to Speedy and Prince. I’m surprised they haven’t heard me wail all night, but the wind was strong, stronger than me, clearly.
I have a problem, I say, and they open the tent to look at me. I can’t see much but I can read the shock on their faces.
I tell them I need to press the button, but they have the same concern I have: is this a valid reason to call search and rescue? I wouldn’t hesitate if I was on my own, but I’m not.
I go back to my tent – it’s too bright outside, there are too many sensations, I just need to close my eyes, or keep them open, it doesn’t matter – everything hurts all the same, but I need them to be still. Not long after they come over again, and tell me they found a side trail nearby, which leads to a road, from where we could hopefully hitch back to South Lake Tahoe, and get to urgent care.
It’s a gamble – the road could be covered in snow for many more miles, we have no idea what it looks like, or what the trail conditions are like. I barely manage to look up the trail on the map myself – the screen of my phone is too bright, but I can see the distance is not too far, and if we don’t make it, I can always press the button.
It takes a few hours to leave. When I’m finally packed, I have no idea how this is going to work. I can hardly keep my eyes open, and everything hurts. The grit in my eyes is overwhelming, everything is red and swollen. The light outside, the snow, there’s nothing that makes it easier. I wear Prince’s mosquito net over my face to reduce the glare of the sun, but it only barely takes the edge off. I take the first few steps and have to stop already. I can only cry as we walk, it’s all too much, too bright, it’s an exercise in torture.
We progress painfully slow. We do perhaps a mile an hour, and all I see are my feet stepping into the fresh snow. Prince trailblazes, and Speedy stays close with me, guiding me down the invisible trail, trying to keep me in the shade, as the sun on the snow is too painful to bear. We’re not immune to the cold either, we try and rest when we can, taking off our shoes to warm up our frozen feet.
I don’t know how far we’ve come when we reach a stretch without any shade, and we quite simple don’t know what to do, how to progress. I can’t walk in this sun. My eyes are constantly filled with the sensation of grit and watering – unable to cope, entirely. Then, a moment of hilarity and absurdity ensues. Prince the Eagle Scout reckons he can make a stretcher, and they can carry me back to civilisation.
He puts in some remarkable effort – finds long branches and uses his Tyvek groundsheet to create a sturdy stretcher. It works, until I get on top and Speedy and Prince pull me up – and the weight is (of course) simply too much for them to carry. They quickly abandon the idea. Instead, I take my bandana and put it over my eyes, while Prince takes my backpack and carries it on his front. Practically blindfolded, I hold on to Speedy’s backpack and we continue, literally step by step.
All I can see is the snow right underneath me, and I have no idea about the drops, the hazards, anything around us. I can’t see that the landscape around us is some of the most beautiful we’ve been in so far, and I can’t see how difficult the terrain is that we’re traversing, except when Speedy postholes up to her waist and gets stuck after a hilarious fall (but manages to climb out unscathed), my field of vision just large enough to watch her wriggle her way out.
It’s probably astounding how calm we all stay, and how we manage to move forward, one small step at a time. Hours later we reach the road, and we all heave sighs of relief to find it snowless, and for a few cars to be parked alongside it. We walk until we pass a fire station, where we ask for help. They call us a taxi, and drive us to the nearby store where we are picked up shortly after, straight to the South Lake Tahoe urgent care.
Suddenly we’re back where we were just a few days ago. We enter the medical center and I get seen swiftly. The doctor gives me some eye drops to temporarily numb my eyes, and inserts a dye. He turns off the main light and shines a purple light into my eyes, the dye quickly attaching to the damaged areas. It’s clear the damage is on the bottom of the eye, it’s the reflection off the snow, but it’s also temporary, and no permanent damage has been done. I’m told it should get better within days, and receive a prescription for eye drops in case of an infection. Then I’m outside again. It’s over. I’m going to be okay. Our rescue mission was successful. We’ve made it to town, and after just a few days on trail, we’re back at square one.
We check into the Coachman Hotel, the best hotel on trail so far, and without speaking much about it, we all feel we don’t want to go back into that snow. The next snowless patch is over 250 miles ahead – we’re flipping up again. This time we’ll move up to Old Station, in the middle of the Northern California section. Maybe we’ll actually be out of the snow for a few days. Maybe.
We spend the evening at the hotel, burning marshmallows over the fire, and dipping into the hot tub that isn’t quite hot enough. The pain in my eye dwindles faintly, and I plan to pick up some sunglasses before we move on again.
I realise in the frenzied moving around and going from car to car I’ve lost some items, my bank card and my sunscreen have fallen out of my chest pocket. The Pacific Crest Trail pin I got in Wrightwood has detached from my pack. It’s gone. I’m in too much pain to worry about my bank card or the sunscreen, but losing my pin makes me feel like I’m failing the PCT. We’re not even thru-hiking in the truest sense of the word anymore, am I still hiking the PCT?