The Worst Day of the Rest of Your Life

Muir Pass Shelter, July 22. The benign cumulus clouds that had dotted the sky all morning were now multiplying, become dark and brooding. I felt a few drops of rain as I posed for this picture but I didn’t think much of it. I snapped a photo of the ominous sky from the top of the pass, gathered my few possessions, then kept hiking south. A few minutes later, I saw a marmot scurrying about and stopped to leisurely watch the little guy, chuckling with amusement. I wish I had known that only a few minutes later, I would experience the worst thunderstorm I have ever hiked through.

It was as if the sky suddenly shattered into a thousand pieces. Out of nowhere, a combination of hail and driving rain began to pummel my arms so aggressively that I had to tuck my hands—still gripping my trekking poles—under my chin like a praying mantis and lower my head so that my eyes wouldn’t be struck by the stinging ice. I yelled out in indignation and started to hike as fast I could, but the forces of nature that had brought on the storm paid no attention to my cries.

I knew I had to drop elevation as quickly as possible but as I passed Helen Lake on the south side of the pass, my progress was suddenly hindered by a flood of water from the overflowing lake that was gushing onto the trail. I could no longer distinguish between the trail and the rocky stream beds on either side of it, so I just sloshed my way downhill, unsure of where exactly I was going—only knowing that I needed to go down. My trail runners and gloves quickly became soaked and within 15 minutes, I could no longer feel my hands and feet. My panicked shivering quickly gave way to sobbing. Warmth and safety and comfort felt so far away—pleasures I had once known but would never feel again.

“No,” I told myself. “This is temporary. You ARE going to be warm and safe and comfortable again soon.” I knew I needed to find a campsite as quickly as possible, but the world around me seemed to be made of only jagged rocks and gushing water.

Finally, I came upon a tentsite next to the Middle Fork of the Kings River and staggered onto it. I could barely unbuckle my pack because my fingers were so numb. I erected my tent as quickly as I could in the rain and then dove inside of it. I had lost my base layers two days before and had nothing dry to wear, so I buried myself in my sleeping bag and tried to regain control over my body and emotions. I was still heaving with sobs when the warmth of the down bag finally began to calm me down. I reached for my cell to check my PCT app and see how many miles I had hiked that day…but, to my horror, the Otterbox encasing my phone had somehow filled with water. A few minutes later, the phone short-circuited and died.

I stared at the wall of my tent, anger coursing through me as my inner child threatened a tantrum. But then, a soothing voice within me said, “This is thruhiking, Janel. This experience is just one of many on the hard but amazing journey that you have committed to.” I closed my eyes, felt the solid ground beneath my body and took a deep breath. “I am here. I am here in this moment on the Pacific Crest Trail. I am committed to this journey and all that it has to offer.”

Thruhiking means learning to roll with whatever the trail throws at you, no matter how uncomfortable. Sometimes, it truly sucks. But it’s good training for the rest of your life. When you’re working towards a big goal, you will inevitably experience trials and tribulations. Life doesn’t always go your way—and that’s a good thing. If it did, you wouldn’t innovate and grow. You wouldn’t appreciate the little victories nearly as much. Committing to something means accepting all that it entails—both the wonderful and the difficult.

So this is just a reminder that whatever you’re struggling with right now on your path is part of a bigger story. Zoom out and take a deep breath. You’ll make it through.

3 Replies to “The Worst Day of the Rest of Your Life”

  1. Once you have been through a lightning storm at a high elevation, in the open, you will always be a bit more cautious. I had to set up tent and sleep through one at Lake 12,250′ just north of Forester. It made me so cautious that I did not spend the night on Whitney, and had to hike down that night and back up the next day, and the clouds that day turned into nothing. How did you lose all of your base layers?

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    1. Hi Linda! Sorry I didn’t reply to this sooner. I unfortunately lost all of my base layers at a car campground in the northern JMT section of the High Sierra. I’ve lost many things on my PCT hike so far! Gifts to the trail gods, I suppose. 😆 I hope you’re well!

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  2. Your words and photos took me there with you. Exposed on a mountain in a thunderstorm is the most terrifying thing that’s happened to me while hiking. I hope you had some calmer days after this.

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