You are currently viewing Prologue

“Don’t buy waterproof hiking shoes,” the experts recommend. “There are too many river crossings. You’ll find non-waterproof footwear dry quicker in the end.”

I have lost count of today’s river crossings. It is May 22, 2019, one month into my Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hike, in America’s Pacific Northwest. Five more months left before I complete one of the world’s most challenging long-distance hikes. How can it be 5°C today, a good ten degrees cooler than Sydney’s coldest winter’s day, a week out from summer? What’s going on? Nippy beyond belief, I’m not enjoying these conditions one bit and suffering big time.  

Sizeable chunks of gelatinous blood clots escape my nostrils. A grimace each time I knock my fingers’ deeply cracked cuticles. Every toe stings and throbs. Bizarrely enough, a wet shoe provides brief relief. The cold water numbs my feet and I forget grit-embedded socks. Until they dry a coarse sandpaper texture and wreak further havoc.

My walking partner is experiencing equal trauma and challenge after this morning’s six-hour hike. A weak sun, the only reprieve from our current misery. We shelter amongst the rubble along the river’s edge in frigid desert conditions and use this opportunity to filter clean water and eat lunch. We stuff a gag-inducing tuna tortilla creation in our mouths before the biting wind forces us to resume our hike.

Recent landslides at Holcomb Crossing near Deep Creek, a tributary of the Mojave River, have devastated the trail’s official path through this canyon. There is no path to see. We consult our navigation app for guidance. It suggests we follow an obstacle course through the middle of a riverbed to get back on course.

Imagine a 20-metre-wide white-water rafting course full of fallen trees, driftwood, large boulders, jagged debris, and possibly snakes. We stumble on, frightened and alert. Every stepping stone is green, slippery-looking, and partially submerged. Makeshift log crossings, assembled by earlier hikers, look unstable and perilous. We must find protrusions in the water for safe passage before the river deepens further with the afternoon’s rising flow.

I should unbuckle my pack straps in case an unanticipated tumble whisks me downstream. Snagging a strap on a submerged log is all it will take. In 2017, two PCT hikers lost their lives this way. But I forget this vital survival strategy. Relying on my agility and trekking poles alone, I prepare to tackle my next river crossing. Without a run-up, I must leap beyond my normal stride to the safest landing point I can find. And do this several times before I reach dry land on the opposite bank.

A pointy rock is ideal, but will I be able to hold my balance and teeter there long enough before I must push off for the next suitable landing spot? Should I go for slippery, flat rocks and anchor my poles hard to keep me upright? Or crab walk my 20kg load through a river whose depth, and flow I can neither see nor estimate?

I have been making these decisions the entire day and loving the challenge but, after a hard 29km slog, fatigue is building. My eyes strain and my lids droop. I blink several times to stave off their closure and yawn. If I were driving a car, I’d heed the Australian Police’s warning to “Stop. Revive. Survive.” But I’m not driving a car. I’m walking 4,300 km of the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA with every essential provision on my back and I must push on, regardless of the difficulties.

My walking partner, upstream, is struggling to find her own safe passage. Dazed, I stare at her, hopeful she will make it to the other side. Visions of lying in a warm bed momentarily enter my consciousness. Focus Katrina, I whisper to myself as I return my gaze to the myriad of crossing options before me.

This rock or that rock? A prod from my pole tests their stability. With the pole guiding me, I advance into the boisterous river toward the least wobbly-looking rock. My shoe fills with water but lands on solid ground. Blessed relief. I push off with my other foot to progress toward the next-best stepping platform, but my foot slips, throwing me off balance. Gripping my left pole, I right myself, just in time. Holy Shit! That was close. I breathe a sigh of relief as I oscillate in slow motion, assessing my next move. Phew! Still standing. You’ve got this, baby. Keep going!

S-N-A-P! as my left pole sheers in two. “A-r-r-g-h-h!” I scream in disbelief.

Splash! Far out! No polite way about this. “F@#*!!

The freezing current whips me downstream. Mild panic grips me. Is this the end? Is the Pacific Crest Trail my final dream hike?

Leave a Reply