Abandoning Wonderland: Knowing when to step back and learn from your mistakes

The north face of Mount Rainier in Washington state. The sun came out on day 3 of our trek and made our first full view of the 14,416' peak all the more special. — Photo by author.

When I met Nathaniel “Reid” Grimm for the first time as he was moving into my house at the beginning of last summer, I had no reason to suspect that this complete stranger, who at the time I had no idea was a national rowing 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 quite exactly what we were in for along the way.

But after a month or two of loose planning and fathering gear, we were ready to go on August 8th. With a sparse amount of training — Reid, being less than three months removed the IRA Championship, and myself being an avid hiker — 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 grab up our already-packed backpacks and start the drive down to Mount Rainier National Forest by six. We show up shortly after eight and find out we have to reschedule our intended itinerary due to packed park. This means 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.

Separating forest and trail was nearly impossible at times, especially when visibility starts to leave along with the sun. — Photo by author.

We were up for it, and did well, at least for the first few portions. 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 would have 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 be 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 by ten — early considering the trek we completed the previous day.

Looking down from the cliffside ledge we camped on, the trees seemed to go on forever, with only the fog to limit their expanse. — Photo by author.

The second day of hiking started with a descent, and a very long one at that. 6.5 miles down a mountain is tough on the knees, especially when carrying over 40 pounds of gear on your back. 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 hiking 25 miles the day before without dinner, followed by another 17 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.

Even after deciding to split up our fourth day of hiking into two manageable 12.5-mile days, as opposed to a single 25-mile one, there would be plenty more work to do the next day, after all.

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 nothing before. We made more oatmeal, ate it, washed out our mess kits, refilled our water, and set out once more, this time with an 18-mile day and a glacier to conquer.

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. — Photo by author.

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 ever further. 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 fit 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, liouidous bile spilled out from 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. It was nearing three in the afternoon and things were not looking good. Reid, being incredibly genial and comforting, continued to pour on the 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/mental 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 recovery, 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 out 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. — Photo by author.

When I awoke, Reid had already addressed our predicament to the park ranger that just happened to stroll through camp, been awarded permission to stay there, and had cooked up a meal for himself. He even managed to barter some food with the nearest tent group. They had homemade apple leathers — which were delicious! — and they needed an extra meal. Since we had been complaining about bringing along excess food practically since our departure, he was happy to oblige in the form of a pair of freeze-dried meals. 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 dire situation, but we had to do what was best.

The group of hikers that Reid had bartered with were actually in a similar situation as us, and were planning on hiking to Sunrise the next day to end their trek due to a busted knee. Their car was located there, but ours was on the other side of the mountain, much too far for us to travel on foot. They graciously offered to move a few things around so that they could give us a lift to our vehicle. 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, with most of our gear already prepared for departure, we 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 ample breaks on the trail (about every mile or so) helped ensure that we had time to drink water and rest our tired bodies. On the fourth day of carrying over-40-pound backpacks up and down mountainous terrain, one’s shoulders are burning a lot.

But we managed to power on and maintain 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 each had to date. The mountain could hardly fit in a single picture from my DSLR 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".

Fremont Fire Lookout sits on the ridge carefully patrolling the surrounding area on day 3 of our trek. The hot, dry weather has dehydrated the flora around it in much the same way that it did to me the previous day. — Photo by author.

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 fairing on that blistering day, when we were initially scheduled to hike 25 miles. 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.

Within a half mile or so of the giant parking lot at Sunrise, Reid and I stopped to take one last picture of the mountain. As we were on the side of the trail, a couple that we had already passed on the trail catches up to us and walks by. The man had a thick primarily-gray beard, a fedora covering up what looked to be a short-haired mohawk, and wore a pair of sunglasses with a green tint that reminded me of a metalworker from some steampunk movie. His significant other was nearly a foot shorter than him, wearing a pair of bright pink bedazzled sunglasses and had on hiking boots that looked way too big for her feet. What caught my eye the most, however, were the bright pink socks that the man was wearing. His pant legs were rolled up so I could see these wools socks and they very nearly spoke to me. So I spoke back.

Looking north and east from above Granite Creek, the North Cascade mountain range was in its full glory for us on day 4. Mount Baker is visible on the left side of the range. — Photo by author.

“Hey! Nice pink socks, man!” I said to him just as he walked past.

“Thank you,” he replied. “This one knitted them herself!” He said pointing to the woman. They laughed and kept walking after I told them that the socks matched her glasses.

When I had taken the last pictures I would take, we walked the last downhill stretch to Sunrise and just about collapsed on the first bench we found.

We had made it.

Almost, at least. We were still halfway around the mountain from our car and the couple that said they could give us a ride were at least two or three hours behind us at our estimation. The trail was mostly downward and would not fair well on her knee. Reid said he’d go and check the ranger station for a ride while I would guard the bags and ask any pedestrians for a lift. As I threw a piece of beef jerky into my mouth, I saw a familiar pair of socks walk in front of me. For some reason, I knew that this guy was headed in the direction we needed to go, so I got his attention one more time.

“Hey, excuse me, but are you headed to Longmire at all?”
“That’s one of the southern entrances to the park, right? Then I do think so.”

I nearly collapsed with joy at his response. The pink-glasses lady had joined us by now.

“Would it possible at all for you guys to give my buddy and me a lift there? We were hiking the Wonderland and I got pretty dehydrated yesterday so we decided to call it and hike out today but our car is down in Longmire.”

They hardly hesitated before telling me that they’d be more than happy to give us a ride. First, however, they wanted to have their picnic lunch. I told them to have no worries or hurries, and that I would meet them in the same spot in a half hour.

When Reid returned from the ranger station, he looked slightly rattled, but when I told him the good news I saw relief wash down his face. We then walked into the air-conditioned, log snack bar building to sit down and wait. From there, time seemed to fly by. Before we knew it, it was time to meet the gracious couple that agreed to give us a ride. The nearly two-hour drive around the park felt like twenty minutes after we got to know the couple more and actually maintain plenty of friendly discussions ranging from our hike to the Olympic Games to Donald Trump’s latest tirades. They were delightfully friendly and down-to-earth people that were impressed by the fact that we had even made it as far as we did on the hike,just the type we needed to help usher us back into human civilization.

When we arrived at my car, we offered them gas money but they refused. We insisted, but so did they, saying it was their pleasure and that we just had to give someone else a ride at some point. Deal.

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. We each bought an Oreo McFlurry from McDonald’s, but those tasted like processed garbage after the first couple of bites. The cold sensation, however, was bliss.

Me posing in front of the east side of Mount Rainier on day 4 of the trek. — Photo by Nathaniel “Reid” Grimm.

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 three 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. If these had been achieved, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t have just gotten home last night (Saturday) instead of on Thursday. 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.

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Jack Russillo is a young travel/outdoor recreation writer. He’s currently working on completing two degrees (journalism and international studies) at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written for The Daily of the UW, The Seattle Times, Seattle Met Magazine, VoyageUW, Utrip.com, and had his own daily blog here on Medium.

Go follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Medium.

It’ll be worth it.

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