Season Ender

I’ve been putting off writing this post, which I suppose isn’t surprising. No one really wants to write about the trip where they broke their ankle. But I took some pretty pictures that day, and the story is probably slightly more interesting than my usual trip reports, so here we go.

I started my day at the Phelps Creek trailhead. My original plan was to do this loop as part of the UP Wilderness Challenge:

Planned route: approx 50 miles and 12,000 ft of gain

This route had been on my list for awhile and I’d heard it was incredibly scenic. I didn’t want to miss any of the views, and I also knew I wasn’t fast enough to complete the entire route in daylight (12 hours). Therefore I planned to split it up over two days, approx 25-30 miles per day, with a brief overnight somewhere near Miner’s Creek. In addition, the weather forecast was iffy, with snow predicted at higher elevations, so I packed a fairly beefy overnight kit (for me) including sleeping pad, quilt, goretex bivy, and even a stove. Some might argue it’s a good thing I had this gear – what if I’d gotten injured even further into the backcountry? However, I can’t help but wonder if carrying a heavier load is part of what contributed to the fall – and I know a heavier pack was definitely more painful to carry after the injury. And so the pros and cons of  “fast and light” are rehashed yet again.

The first 5 miles of the day were an easy road walk from the Phelps Creek trailhead to the Little Giant Pass trailhead. I made good time, and reached the Chiwawa River crossing in good spirits. So far, the weather was incredible and I was super excited to see a new corner of the wilderness.

The Chiwawa River crossing, which is only 25 ft beyond the Lil Giant trailhead, was barely 12 inches deep and a non-issue. I forded barefoot because I’m a princess and I like to keep my shoes dry.

Chiwawa River crossing – 12 inches deep in late September

Then I began the climb up to Little Giant Pass. Several times during the climb I thought how glad I was that I’d be doing a loop and wouldn’t have to come back down the same way. The trail is that winning combination of long, steep and dusty that I wasn’t excited about revisiting.

As I made my way up, I ran into two older guys who stopped to chat. As soon as they saw me, they had lots of questions, starting with the somewhat off-putting “Are you all by yourself?” (When you come across a woman on the trail, immediately asking if she’s alone is rarely a good idea. Depending on the tone of your voice, it comes across as either creepy or incredulous, neither of which are great. These guys were more incredulous than creepy.)

They also wanted to know where I was going. When I explained my route one of them literally stared at me for a good 5 seconds. Count that out in your head – it’s a long time to stare at a stranger on a trail! I finally broke the silence by asking him if he was familiar with the route. He said he was, and then looked me up and down and said “I guess you must be tough” in a tone that suggested he didn’t think so at all. He then glanced at his watch doubtfully and began listing off all the places I could emergency bivy and/or exit the wilderness early if I didn’t make it to camp on time.
He was still calling out bail-out points as I walked away. “I’m good!” I shouted back at him, not hiding my annoyance. “Thanks for your concern.” I was right on pace for making 25-30 miles the first day. I knew I could complete the loop in 2 days without issue. (Not to mention that is a relatively slow pace for some of the folks who’ve done this route!) I silently thanked the guy for providing me with a little extra motivation. I imagined that when I got home, I would start my trip report off with an ode to the old guys, because their doubt just added fuel to my fire.

Leaving the doubters behind, I continued up towards Little Giant Pass. The views in the last mile before you reach the pass are stunning. The foliage was already starting to show fall colors, and I could see Maude, Seven-Fingered Jack, and others.


Fall foliage


Maude and Seven-Fingered Jack

Of course, the best was yet to come: once you actually get to the pass, there’s the coveted view down into the Napeequa Valley. I’d seen many photos, but it’s even better in person. Clark loomed sharp and glaciated, Glacier Peak hid in clouds down-valley, and the Napeequa River meandered and looped upon itself far below. I started my descent.


Clark, as seen from Little Giant Pass
Napeequa River

The descent from Little Giant Pass down to the Napeequa is known for being steep, narrow, and exposed in places. Previous trip reports have warned that two horses died falling off the trail here, and reportedly tumbled many hundreds of feet before coming to rest. I found the trail to be steep and loose, but it was still just a hike and not a scramble. Not so bad after all, I thought.

I rounded a switchback and ran into another couple. This interaction was totally different than my run-in with the old guys. This was a man and woman heading home after a weekend of backpacking, and the woman happened to recognize me from some of my trip reports – and even claimed to have enjoyed some of those TRs! It’s always cool to learn that people (other than my dad – hi dad!) actually read this blog. All my frustration at the old guys melted away. The woman was such a morale-booster that I jokingly asked if someone had paid her to show up on the trail as a cheering squad. She laughed and we all went on our way. (Candy, if you’re reading this – great to run into you!)

I continued my descent. It was a good day! The scenery was breathtaking. I was ahead of schedule. The trail wasn’t that bad. And hey, someone actually reads my blog!

And then WHAM. I suddenly found myself flat on my stomach, 5-10 ft below the trail, hanging onto a piece of slide alder to prevent myself from dropping any further. I had somehow fallen off the trail, and tumbled down the steep slope. In the space of one second, I went from feeling like hot shit to feeling like total shit. I’m still not exactly sure what happened. From what I can tell the trail simply crumbled away beneath me. You know how you occasionally pass trail washouts and think, Boy, I’m glad I wasn’t there when that happened? Well, this time I was there.

Once I crawled back onto the trail, I tentatively tried to walk but could tell immediately that my trip was over. (God DAMN it. I really wanted to prove those old guys wrong.)  I’ve sprained my left ankle several times, but this felt different. I kept waiting for the pain to fade, as it usually does with a sprain, but it never did. And when I stepped on my foot the wrong way, the pain instantly took over everything.

I stopped, sat down on my pack, and sent an InReach message explaining why I was turning around. I’d told a few people where I was going and my planned route. I didn’t want anyone to look at my InReach track and worry about why I had changed direction and was suddenly moving so slowly. I definitely did not want anyone to call SAR. Although I had a hunch my ankle was broken (later confirmed by x-ray), it wasn’t bad enough that I needed a medevac. I figured it was just going to be a long, slow hobble back to the trailhead. And indeed it was. When I finally downloaded my GPS track back at home, I learned that it took me a whopping 11 hours to cover 6.5 miles.

The climb back up to the pass was not fun. I was a little dizzy from a combination of pain, heat and hunger. I stopped frequently to rest, eat, drink, and even take a few pictures. Hey, if you’re going to be stuck crawling and limping along at 0.5 mph, Little Giant Pass is not a bad place to be.

A hawk that stopped to say hello as I made my way back towards the trailhead
This is as close as I got to the river. If you squint, you can see a group camped along the edge of the river near the center of the frame.
Farewell Napeequa! Maybe next time!

When I realized just how slowly I was moving, I messaged Tom and asked him to meet me at the Little Giant trailhead. This would save me a 5-mile road walk back up to the Phelps Creek trailhead, where I had parked my car. Originally I was thinking that I’d just tough it out and walk or hitchhike up the road. It didn’t seem right to ask Tom to drive all the way out to the trailhead (2.5 hrs one way), just to give me a ride 5 miles up the road. But once I saw how slow I was moving, I realized that getting a ride from Tom would save me 10 painful hours of road walking on a broken ankle, so I swallowed my pride and asked him to meet me.

Finally I reached the damn pass (again), and started to descend. With my first step down the steep trail, the pain went from sharp to blinding. I sat down in the dirt and had myself a good cry. I’d been hoping that I could just sort of, I don’t know, roll down the hill to my car. Of course I didn’t really think it’d be that easy, but I’d told myself that once I got back to the top of the pass, all I had to do was “cruise” a few miles downhill back to my vehicle. I’d let gravity do the work. Unfortunately, when you’re walking on a broken bone, gravity is definitely not working to your advantage.

I rummaged through my first aid kit and popped 4 Ibuprofen, before taking a deep breath and starting to butt-scoot my way down the first 20 feet of trail. Butt-scooting was impossibly slow and demoralizing, but descending on my feet was unbearably painful.  Hiking out was starting to feel impossible. I put my head in my hands and had another cry. Then I took out my Inreach and texted Tom: “Honey, I’m not sure how I’m going to do this. Going downhill is excruciating.” I was seriously considering asking him to call SAR. The uphill was painful but doable. The downhill was something else.

Ibuprofen never looked so good.

Tom texted back “I can help you. You rest if you need it.” That was exactly what I needed to hear.

Even though I knew Tom was on his way, I didn’t want to just plop down in the middle of trail and give up. I soon realized that although steep downhills required the tedious butt-scooting move, moderate downhills were manageable on my feet. Not pain-free, but at least doable. I figured out how to shuffle along in a way that never fully weighted my injured ankle. It was slow. So very slow. But I was making forward progress, and that’s all I really cared about.

A good example of butt-scoot terrain
A good example of terrain I could cover on foot
At least the scenery was gorgeous!
Western Pasqueflower
The trail goes through this rocky section, marked by cairns. Not quite butt-scoot terrain, but definitely very careful stepping.

Tom finally reached me at about 730 pm. I’d fallen and broken my ankle at 130 pm. In the 6 hours since then, I’d covered approx 3 miles. I was so glad to see him. Instantly I felt better, partly because I love him and just seeing him makes me happy, and partly because the first thing he did was take my backpack off my shoulders.

We then started our slow procession down the trail. I was in the lead with Tom behind me. We laughed and made jokes about the desperate measures I took to get him to go hiking with me. Then I complained some more. Then I cheered up because I only had a couple more miles to go. Then I wailed because my ankle fucking hurt and it was going to take us hours to cover those last couple miles. And then I’d fall silent and we’d trudge/limp along in the quiet night, almost – I said almost – enjoying our impromptu date night hike.

Finally, at midnight, we got back to the trailhead. I’ve never been so glad to see a vehicle! A huge thank you to Tom for meeting me on the trail, and to Angela and Mark, who let Rowan sleep at their house while Tom and I were out wandering around in the woods. And to all of my friends who offered to help in whatever way they could. It’s fun to pretend that I do these adventures “solo,” but when push comes to shove, I was so grateful to have a community supporting me.

Epilogue: The next day, back in Seattle, I went to urgent care, where they determined I had a broken fibula and referred me to an orthopedist. The orthopedist confirmed that it was broken, and told me he couldn’t rule out surgery just yet. I go back tomorrow (!) for another visit, during which he’ll take another x-ray, and determine whether or not I’m going under the knife. Fingers crossed for good news!

Broken 😦

19 Replies to “Season Ender”

  1. Wow, what a story! Pretty courageous that you walked out. Not sure what I would have done to be honest! Hope your recovery won’t take too long. Kudos for the support you got :).

    What was the date of your trip? (sorry if I missed it in the report). We saw the same group camped in the valley during our recent trip!

    We also did it in two days with the plan to camp at Middle Ridge, but didn’t quite make it there the first day.

    Hope you get to do this gorgeous loop next year!

      1. Hehe, whoops. Sorry for characterizing you in that way ;).

        Too bad we weren’t there to help (although we probably would have missed you: we left very early from the trailhead to make it far enough at our hiker pace ;).

        Good luck with the recovery!

  2. Sorry it happened, Jessica. Is the surgery going to happen or just a cast thing?

    I better skinny up, cause nobody is giving me a piggyback at this weight.

  3. Damn. What an awesome story. So sorry the cost was a broken bone. Tom is awesome! So is Candy! And although this probably has ZERO bearing on your injury, I’ll say that I broke my fibula in February and after having to sit still for one month I was able to ride my bike and I was finally able to run after three months. I was told I could run in a pool much sooner but I don’t have that kind of focus. All the best!

  4. Damn, that sucks. Great writeup, though, and solid work self-rescuing. I’m glad I have only broken hand bones (twice), because the bone bruise I got on my heel was my most frustrating season-ender ever — foot injuries are the worst. Be patient and keep your spirits up.

  5. This is the time when you grab a whistle and blow. Candy and I would have gladly come to your assistance. I’m sorry it worked out this way.

    I feel really bad because we looked for you along the river from up to LGP, and we didn’t see you. I just figured it meant you were moving a lot faster than I anticipated. I told Candy I was sure you were just fine.

    I’m sorry we weren’t able to help, and glad you made it out.

    1. Josh! Great to hear from you and Candy! You shouldn’t feel bad at all. And honestly, you guys would’ve lost your minds if you tried to hike out with me. Have you ever walked at 0.5 mph? It is really, really slow. 🙂

  6. We could’ve at least lent you our poles, you can use them as crutches, no? Not perfect, but beats destroying your ankle with every single step. We could’ve also driven you anywhere you needed to go.

    Candy was really looking forward to your trip report. So we’re both upset that we could neither help you nor live vicariously through your posts. We wish you the best of luck with your recovery.

  7. Just found out about this recently, Jessica. A remarkable story and incredible toughness on your part to deal with so much pain. Absolutely sucks to go through such an ordeal, but I’m glad you made it out safely. That’s so great Tom was able to get to you and help out. I also just learned about your Alaska bike-rafting adventure… Congratulations on being chosen and best of luck on your journey. Looking forward to reading about it.


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