Day 76: When I Nearly got Swept Away

June 5, 2018

802.7-813.8

Pinchot Pass wasn’t as steep or sketchy as Glenn or Forrester had been, but the trail was obscured by snow on both sides and even though we were hiking by 5:00am, it was unusually warm and we were postholing for several miles the whole way down the other side. Fortunately, the descent was not as steep as Glenn or Forrester either, so even though we were postholing at least there was no danger of losing one’s balance and tumbling down the mountain.

Because we couldn’t see the trail, we and several other hikers were all kind of forging our own paths, trying to find the footprints in the snow of those who’d hiked before us and follow them, since the packed snow had melted under the sun and frozen at night several times and made for an easily discernable walking path. I was using Guthooks to try and stay as much on the trail as possible, but eventually decided it’d be safer and easier going if I just followed the footprints of other hikers. Walking on snow wouldn’t damage the earth beneath my feet, I reasoned, and I couldn’t know exactly where the trail was until I got off the mountain anyway. 

Once I got clear of the snow and down into the trees, the postholing was over and river crossings began. There were TONS of rivers to cross on our way to Pinchot Pass, including the South Fork Kings River. At the first major crossing, I was ahead of Sparky and Ghosthiker but there was a whole crew of hikers taking a break on the other side and it wasn’t a particularly bad crossing, so I changed into my water shoes and ambled across, then sat down to dry my feet and take a break while I waited for my trail family.

We did not have to cross the river here.

I chatted a bit with the other hikers whom I’d seen along the trail since yesterday but hadn’t officially met. One of them I’d exchanged a few sentences with before so I thought it only polite that I get his trail name. Pin Cushion. While hiking in the desert he’d somehow managed to get a handful of cactus pokers, so thin and fine he hadn’t even noticed them at first. I saw other familiar hikers there as well and we all chatted for a bit, and when Sparky and Ghosthiker arrived the three of us set off together. 

All the river crossings went smoothly except for the last one. It was later in the day and I’d pulled ahead of Sparky and Ghosthiker again when I came upon a second crossing of the S. Fork Kings River. Many of the same hikers I’d seen earlier were all sitting around safely on the other side, so I wasn’t too concerned. The river looked sketchy and I wouldn’t have even tried it if no one else had been there. Pin Cushion shouted some directions to me above the roaring of the river, telling me where the easiest (ha!) part to cross was and recommending I take it sidestepping and leaning into the current.

All wise advice, which I followed, but about halfway across I suddenly lost my footing and went down. Rather than try to stay upright I knew I had to gain purchase on something or else be swept down the river and very quickly over the side of the mountain. I instinctively dropped to my hands and knees, gripping the first large rock I could get my hands on and bracing my feet against more rocks, anything to hold me fast against the current. I had to keep my head tilted completely back to keep my face out of the water. I knew I probably only had a few moments before the current became stronger than the rocks I was braced against, but that was all the time it took for Pin Cushion and another hiker named Raven to come to my rescue. They’d been standing at the edge of the river watching me carefully and had jumped into action the moment I started to go down. They made a human chain with a few other hikers and Pin Cushion was able to reach me within moments, pulling me out of the current and into safer waters.

I don’t quite recall what happened between Pin Cushion taking my arm while I was in the water and when I found myself sitting safely on a rock on the other side, shivering. I also don’t remember how much time passed while I sat there, but Raven hovered nearby making sure I was OK while Pin Cushion went to direct more hikers who’d appeared along the trail and were preparing to cross. I might have been a little in shock from the cold water (Oh, and almost dying!). I think I probably thanked Pin Cushion and Raven no less than 5 times, probably (hopefully) more. If they hadn’t reacted so quickly I don’t know what would have happened. 

I was soaked through, and so were all the front straps of my pack, my hip belt pockets, and the padded back of my pack, but everything inside stayed dry. I vaguely remember thinking, as I went down in the river, that if my pack took on water it would pull me backwards into the river and that would be it. The water was JUST low enough that I was able to keep my face and most of my pack above it. Just.

Raven told me later that I was a true thru-hiker because the first thing I asked once I was out of immediate danger was, “Did anything fall off my pack?” I don’t remember it, but it made sense. My Oboz were strapped to the back of my pack. I couldn’t exactly climb mountains without shoes. 

Once I snapped out of it, I put on my windbreaker as a shield from the cold, but I was still shaking long after the incident. Sparky and Ghosthiker arrived and crossed the river very, very carefully, and we only hiked another couple hundred feet when we found a good camping spot for the night. I couldn’t even get my tent up all the way before I knew I needed to change out of my wet clothes ASAP, which I did. 

I later learned that this is the same river crossing where a hiker was swept away last year and did not make it. Good God.

Warmer and with everything set up for camp, the three of us and a JMT hiker named Chip began making our individual dinners together. We ended up eating alone, though, because shortly after we gathered a light rain rolled in and we all scurried to our tents.

I lay in the fading light feeling completely drained and still shaking. I never saw Pin Cushion or Raven again to thank them for helping me.

Published by rogerssj23

I'm a long-distance hiker, an audiobook producer, and an amateur writer. I live in the woods in a renovated 1972 Airstream with my Golden Retriever Zoe. Read more about my hiking adventures at sarahhikes.com.

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