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Abandoning Wonderland: Knowing When to Call it Quits

By Jack Russillo · 6 months ago

When I met Nathaniel “Reid” Grimm for the first time, he was moving into my house at the beginning of last summer. Then, I had no reason to suspect that this complete stranger—who at the time I had no idea was a college rowing national champion—would be right at my side during some of the most distressing moments of my life. But then again, how could I? We wouldn’t decide to hike the Wonderland Trail, a 94-mile trek that circumnavigates Mount Rainier, for at least another month and neither of us knew exactly what we were in for until we were in it.

But after a bunch of loose planning and gathering gear, we were ready to go on August 8. With no official training regiment — Reid was less than three months removed the NCAA rowing championship and I was already hiking often — we assumed we would be fine to handle 16 miles a day with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain for less than a week. Soon into the trip, however, we discovered our lack of preparedness.

Day 1:

On the morning of the hike, we grabbed up our already-packed backpacks, left our U-district home, and drove to Mount Rainier National Forest. We arrived shortly after 7 and found out we had to reschedule our intended itinerary due to packed park. This meant shifting from a six-day trip to a five-day trip and beginning with a 25-mile day.

Ranger Wayne thought we could do it.

Fog was common in the forest we hiked through on the first day.

We were up for it, and we did well, at least for the first few portions. We had great energy past Klapatchee peak, where we witnessed a howling marmot below our first glacier of the trip, and then to the south Puyallup River campground, which had a rickety, single-person rope bridge to cross. A thick mist had restricted most of our views of the surrounding landscape to that point of the hike. From there, we climbed up our fourth peak of the day, and that’s when things began to get tough. By then, the rain had soaked through my Nike hiking shoes and I was trudging around with slight squish-squash with every step. We had hiked over 20 miles by the time we made it back down that mountain, and we still had one more to go before we could make camp. With five miles to go and the sun’s light beginning to creep away from us, we marched onward up our fifth peak. By the end of the night, we climbed over 8,200″ and descended nearly the same amount, we later found out thanks to measurements taken by Reid’s watch.

Morale was low. Quite low. Reid broke out the “freight train” motto that he got from crew practice and I clung to it like a recent convert to the Bible.

“FREIGHT TRAIN, BABY! CAN’T STOP, WON’T STOP!” was probably heard by more than a few people in the area as we stormed upward, along with a few expletives from myself.

We maintained our 2-MPH hiking pace for the 12th consecutive hour, along with a constant banging of hiking poles to ward away any nearby bears or mountain lions. When Reid turned around to hug me around 10 pm, after over an hour of hiking by headlight (the batteries of mine had died, but I had more in my bag), I thought he’d given up on me.

Instead, he’d led us to the campsite! Drenched to the bone and shivering, we pitched our tent and got ready for bed. Reid munched on a granola bar while I sipped water and dry-heaved from the exhausting day. We later figured I needed to eat more food to feel better. Whatever we did once we got the tent set up, both of us were fast asleep soon after.

Day 2:

When we awoke the next morning, we discovered that we actually hadn’t camped in our campsite. In fact, it wasn’t a campsite at all. We had established our camp along the trail to our site right in the edge of a monstrous cliff. If either one of us had started to go far from the tent in the wrong direction, the other would’ve been out of earshot by the time they hit the bottom of the cliff no less than 500 feet below. But, without any real problems, we were able to sleep in, make a big breakfast of oatmeal, and hit the trail.

Shot near the cliff that we slept near.

The day started with a six-mile descent down the mountain. Each one of the 40-plus pounds of gear on my back pained my shoulders. But without any real stresses, we made our way to the Mowich River, where we had lunch amongst the myriad of vigorous streams around us. Beef jerky, some dried mangoes, and a round of flatbread with almond butter on it for me and a round of granola bars for Reid. After fueling up, it was time for our first and only ascent of the day, a long hike up to Mowich Lake and then Ipsut Pass, which, if not for the seemingly-endless fog rolling in, would probably have a tremendous view of Mount Rainier. Instead, we were able to focus on the path ahead of us and actually arrive at the top ahead of schedule. At that point, we had hiked 12.5 miles in six hours, stops included. We were quite content about that. From the pass, we hiked downward for what seemed like an eternity until we reached our camp at Ipsut creek. After no dinner the day before, followed by another 18 on that day, we cooked up a double-portion of freeze-dried chicken and rice, replenished our water supply at the creek, and conked out for the night.

Day 3:

I was already awake when my phone alarm went off at 7 am, but it was still far from a pleasant awakening. My legs were fine, but my shoulders ached like never before. We made oatmeal, ate, washed out our mess kits, refilled our water, and set out once more, this time with an 18 miles and a glacier to conquer ahead.

A view of Mount Tahoma and the glaciers that lie beneath it. “Little Tahoma” didn’t seem so small when we got up as close as we did.

Making it to the Carbon Glacier was seamless. Our bodies felt good and we saw the sun for first time since leaving the city, boosting morale and warming us up. The sight of the gigantic glacier was spectacular, and spurned us on. Despite our late start that morning, we managed to make decent time, for a while at least.

After over six miles on a continual ascent, in the ever-warming sunlight, my stamina began to give out. My strides were smaller, my shoulders became increasingly sore, and I was growing thirstier and thirstier. When Reid pointed out that we had barely gone a quarter-mile since our last break, I knew I was becoming badly fatigued. I assumed that once we had hiked the nine miles to Mystic Lake and were able to stop for lunch, I would regain my strength, but that was far from the case.

Reid was feeling fine, no more tired than any other Wonderland-hiker, but functioning normally. For me, the mere thought of food made me sick. While he munched on trail mix to recover, I was hunched over in agony sipping whatever water I could hold down. That is, until it wouldn’t stay down anymore. After a few minutes, liquid spilled out of my mouth and onto the moss beneath my hunched body. This would continue for around half an hour, with a few other hikers passing on good thoughts to us. We did, after all, still have another nine miles to go before we would reach our scheduled campsite at Sunrise.

Too much time had passed and things were not looking improving. Reid continued to pour on words of encouragement and asked if I needed anything at all. Eventually, I gave up and told him that I wouldn’t be able to make it to Sunrise that day, and likely not to the end of the hike at all. I felt terrible, worse in my physical weakness that prevented me from achieving this goal that we’d had for most of or short friendship.

I let him down. I let myself down.

Even after some time of puke-free rest, I was still not in shape to continue hiking on. Another quarter-mile brought us to the Mystic Lake campground and Reid was all the more considerate as we tried to find space in what was already supposed to be a full camp. He put up our tent as I shivered in the afternoon sun, I crawled into my sleeping bag the moment he was done. I was asleep within minutes.

Rock stacks were the most reliable (and only) way to locate the trail after straying any distance from it. Usually in riverbeds, they helped us find the best way to traverse the confusing terrain.

When I awoke, Reid had already explained our predicament to the park ranger that had strolled into camp. We were allowed to stay there that night, but we had to abandon our itinerary and head out the next day, which was our plan anyways.

I managed to recuperate more and more throughout the night as I slowly got over the fact that it was my fault we’d be heading home two days earlier than originally planned. It was a sad situation, but we had to do what was best.

The rest of our night at Mystic Lake campground consisted of packing for the next day, eating whatever we could stuff in our mouths, and dreaming about the hot meals we’d be eating when arrived back in civilization the following day.

Day 4:

We awoke promptly at seven the next morning and were on the trail by eight. I felt great. Not just relative to the previous day either. I felt energized, healthy, and strong as we hiked on toward the safe haven of society. Being sure to take many short breaks on the trail (about every mile or so) helped ensure that we had time to drink water and rest our tired bodies.

We maintained that same 2-MPH speed that we always seemed to revert to naturally. By 11, we had hiked over six miles and gained over 4,000 feet of elevation to bring us past Granite Creek and to the most epic view of Mount Rainier we’d had to date. The mountain could hardly fit in a single picture from my camera! We took off our packs and relished in the late morning sun as we gazed at the glacial behemoth before us and snacked for a few minutes. Despite all the agony I was in less than 24 hours before, I was as close to an agnostic heaven as I may ever be. Maybe it was just the aftereffects of dehydration, but I felt much higher up than 6,800″.

Rock stacks were the most reliable (and only) way to locate the trail after straying any distance from it. Usually in riverbeds, they helped us find the best way to traverse the confusing terrain.

When we had properly refueled ourselves and taken all the pictures we’d need, we set off on the final leg of our journey. Down for about a mile, up to Frozen Lake, and then down another mile or so to Sunrise, our portal back to the city.

As we hiked on, the sun grew warmer and warmer, and reaffirmed our decision to hike out that day. If I had gotten dehydrated the day before, in a cooler climate, I couldn’t bring myself to think how I would’ve been faired hiking the 25 miles we were originally scheduled for that day. It must have been over 70-degrees by noon. All in all, it made the decision to give up easier. I didn’t want to be miserable and end up harboring ill will toward the Wonderland nor did I want to continue to subject my body to such physical duress when I was clearly not prepared for it. As we made our way past Frozen Lake and over our last uphill portion of the trek, I kept thinking about what I could have done to prevent my ailment: drink more water on the trail and train better beforehand were the two main suspects. The fact that I had oral surgery nine days before the trip and had grossly overpacked my backpack were also cogs in the machine that was my undoing. Either way, I was happy to heading back home without any further injuries. And I certainly had plenty to learn from for the next time I would take on trek such as the Wonderland.

Looking northeast from above Granite Creek, other Cascade mountains basking in late summer sun.

The car ride home to Seattle was hot and filled with traffic, but Reid and I were in great spirits. We had survived the hike, although we hadn’t completed it. It was a learning curve and we were happy to be on our way home where we didn’t have to haul our food on our back or walk 10 miles to our next camp. Instead, we had soft mattresses to look forward to.

Throughout the return trip, I repeatedly thanked Reid for all of his support and help during the trek. Without him, I may not have made it back. He never carried any of my weight, but he certainly offered. He set up the tent while I rested and did all the little things around camp to help make us comfortable. I hadn’t known this guy for more than a couple months and he was already so willing to take care of me after one of my lowest moments, and that is something that I will never forget.

And although we weren’t even gone four full days, it was still a terrific learning experience for me in the world of backpacking. My longest camping trip before this was a week-long car trip along the North Cascades with my dad when I was in middle school. This trek was a good test of my limits as a hiker. Never before has my body turned me away from a trail before this and I am going to ensure that I am plenty fit to complete the next expedition I set my sights on, regardless of its difficulty. My biggest things will be making sure to be in better physical shape, drinking more water during hiking, get a pair of waterproof hiking shoes, and to pack lighter. It’s all about preparation, and I fully intend to be better prepared next time.

You better believe I’m coming back with a vengeance.