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PCT 2015 Day 138: The Day I Flew Out of the Mountains

  • Start: 2,449.0
  • End: 2,466.9
  • Miles: 17.9 (minus around 16 skipped by helicopter!)
  • Camp: Skykomish

We had been hoping that Chug’s knee would improve overnight but it became clear early on that that was not the case. He couldn’t put weight on it, barely able to hobble round camp supported by trekking poles. 

I had no cell service (normal for the mountains) so I ran down the hill to where I’d seen two thru-hikers camped last night, to see if anyone had cell service with a different provider, or perhaps a number for the district ranger that I could call when I hiked high enough to get service myself. Papa Smurf stuck his head out of his tent and offered to come and assess the damage: he has trained as a Wilderness First Responder so thought he might be able to help us. He agreed that it was unwise for Chug to try to hike the 18 miles out to Steven’s Pass, especially given the steep and rocky terrain ahead. It risked damage to the injured knee, a trip or fall from reliance on the trekking poles, and we wouldn’t be able to make it in a single day anyway. We had enough food to be able to ration perhaps an extra day but not much beyond that. We took his pack and tried to hike up the hill but it became clear we weren’t going anywhere. We were stuck. Papa Smurf and I built a rudimentary stretcher and offered to carry him out, but he said if it was bad enough for that he would call search and rescue from his personal locator beacon. Which is what we did. We hiked painstakingly back down the hill towards the lake, where we thought it more likely that a helicopter could land if it needed to, headed back to our previous campsite, set up camp and called for help.

After a couple of hours, we had heard no signs of a helicopter and figured the weather was too bad, and that a hiking team was on its way instead. We settled in for another night, thinking that a hiking team would take a while to get in and might not be able to pack up and return in the dark. At around 5:30, I heard the sound of a helicopter rotor, masked by the noise of an aeroplane. It grew louder, and I ran out to the lake to see what was going on. The King County Sheriff had sent out a small helicopter; the pilot motioned to indicate he was here for us, and pointed to where he was intending to put it down. The patch of ground he picked was hardly bigger than the helicopter itself. 

The pilot, Guy, came to assess Chug and said he could either carry him out and leave me behind, or he could go back without us and send a Huey back for both of us! Crazy, especially as I was able to hike. I probably couldn’t now make the 18 miles to town before dark though, and Chug said he wasn’t keen for leaving me behind for another overnight with so little food. We said goodbye to Guy and settled down to await the second crew. Minutes later, Guy returned and asked us how much our packs weighed. With less than a day to town, they were no more than 35lb together. He said in that case, he should take Chug out to Skykomish and then come back for me and the packs! Chug hobbled out to the helicopter, and I packed up all our gear with the help of Peter Pan and Bigfoot who were camped nearby.

Just twenty minutes later, the helicopter returned. I could feel the vibrations caused by the rotors through the ground once again, sending another adrenaline shot coursing through my veins. It’s a visceral shock, not so much the noise but the physical sensation of movement and instability. We flew almost directly to Skykomish, but I was able to see the hill we had tried to hike up this morning. The view was humbling; the forest stretches for miles with no interruptions and the trail tracking the mountain ridges looks so alone and exposed. And I’ve walked that road for almost 2,500 miles.

At the Skykomish airport (a clearing in the trees) Chug had already been loaded into a Fire Department ambulance and quizzed about his knee. We had the option of staying in Skykomish or heading to the hospital in Monroe. We needed to find out what was wrong before heading back out to the mountains, so we went to the hospital.

The doctor and the X-ray could find nothing wrong, and the pain was explained as a bruised meniscus. Nothing for it but to rest. Skykomish trail angel Andrea Dinsmore “PCT Mom” agreed to come and fetch us from the hospital and deliver us to the Inn in Skykomish once we were dismissed around 10:30pm, taking us via McDonald’s to eat the first meal we’d had since lunchtime. I’m so tired, but it looks like I’ll have a couple of days to rest up.

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