Welcome To The West Coast Trail
For Odysseus, the mermaids were not only attractive and alluring, they were also dangerous. Deadly, in fact. For Indiana Jones, the Holy Grail was the ultimate prize, but it lured him into lethal dangers he could not even imagine beforehand.
And then there's the West Coast Trail. For hikers and backpackers, this is among the most sought after epic treks on the planet. People come from all over the world to face the challenge of this legendary 47 miles (75 kilometers) of nature, strung out along the southwest coast of British Columbia's Vancouver Island.
Granted, there are other epic trails due to their length — the thousands of miles of the AT, the PCT, the CDT — but none of them compress the challenging obstacles in such a compact package like the WCT. In a one-week period, the WCT will put you through the wringer while wrapping you in the most glorious natural environment on earth.
This is paradise almost untouched by mankind. On the trail, you are surrounded by the glory of a temperate rain forest on the one hand and the majesty of the Pacific Ocean on the other. What has been touched by human hands here has been done so only to the degree that it opens a magnificent trail for visitors who are willing and able to work through a nonstop obstacle course. Because that's exactly what the WCT is.
But like the mermaids or the Holy Grail, the WCT is also dangerous. Perhaps that's part of the allure. The official trail map says, "More than 100 hikers are evacuated every season due to injuries. Many sprains, fractures, and dislocations happen because of a slip or trip." Injuries are common here. Death is possible.
All it takes is a single misstep. A friend of mine fell off a sheer cliff here. She was saved only because her backpack snagged on the bushes and her husband pulled her to safety. During my own hike, I think I located the spot where she fell. I almost repeated her stumble as I stepped into a soft spot and felt myself tilting dangerously where the cliff is only inches from the edge of the trail and the only barrier is a thin hedge of salal bushes. My friend was lucky. So was I. But this is the WCT, and the challenge is what experienced backpackers come for. Facing a big challenge brings life into sharp focus. It makes your heart beat fast, your brain wake up, all your senses come to life.
NOTE: My intention was to keep a real journal of my hike on the WCT. I wanted to record a daily log of every experience, every challenge, how I felt about the trek, fascinating people I met, and insights that came to me as I worked my way along this epic trail.
My second intention was to shoot lots of photos to show what the trail is really like. How difficult it is. How physically demanding is it to take on such a legendary trek, so people back home would be able to taste the rich flavor of the whole experience and understand the attraction that lures hikers from around the world.
On both counts, I failed.
I hope this doesn't sound like a lame excuse for my failure, but here are the reasons I didn't keep a journal or photograph the trail more fully.
- First, every time I arrived in camp, I was so exhausted that the last thing on my mind was writing about the day's journey. Some nights I couldn't even think about fixing food for myself. All I wanted to do was set up my tent, unroll the sleeping bag and go to bed. On a scale of 1 to 10, my exhaustion was 12.
- And second, whenever I found a spot that would allow me to pull out my iPhone and grab a photo I was standing in a relatively safe place looking at something I thought would make a nice photograph. At those moments, I was not risking life and limb fighting my way through an unforgiving obstacle. So, my photos in no way represent what the true nature of the trail is really like. It's impossible to photograph the most challenging aspects of the trail, because in those extremely difficult obstacles you're totally consumed just trying to keep from getting yourself injured or killed. You don't have time for photos. You can't be juggling a camera when you're struggling just to keep from losing your grip or balance or both. The best way to visually capture the trail would be a GoPro camera filming someone else who is working through the difficulties of the trail. Unfortunately, I didn't have a GoPro.
You want to know what it's like? Lace up your boots and go yourself. Only then will you understand.
But if you stick with me I will do my best to tell my story of the most incredible hike of my life.
Before Day One
My hiking buddy, Steve, did this trail last year, starting from the Pachena Bay (north) end of the trail and hiked south to Gordon River. Somewhere along the way he called me on the phone and told me what he was doing and said, "Hey Rich, do you want to hike this awesome trail with me next year?" And I said yes.
I wonder how many people come to the WCT because someone else told them about it and the story was intriguing. That's how it worked for me. When I got off the phone I got on the computer and started watching YouTube videos and reading blogs. The intrigue grew and I became more and more excited about making this trek.
It was January 5th when we reserved our permits, and we got the last two openings for our intended June 18th start on the trail from the Gordon River entry point. Yes, you have to start very early to get a slot, otherwise you might have to wait a year. So if you want to do this, make up your mind early and get on the phone to Parks Canada (1-877-737-3783) to reserve your spot. The reservable period is from May 1 to September 30.
There are three ways to enter the West Coast Trail. Most popular is the northern access point at Pachena Bay. There is universal agreement that starting at the north end puts you on the easiest end of the trail for the first few days. Maybe that's why it so popular. Going in at Pachena Bay gives a hiker a few days to break into the demands of the trail before hitting the really difficult stuff. It also allows the backpack weight to be reduced as food is consumed. By that theory, when you hit the hard part farther south, the pack is lighter and you are all warmed up and accustomed to the terrain.
The second most popular way to get on the trail is from the south end at Gordon River (near Port Renfrew). This is acknowledged as the most difficult end of the trail, which might possibly be the reason this comes in second in popularity.
The third option is to enter at Nitinaht Village, which puts you on the trail about two-thirds of the way toward the northern end. If a hiker wants to experience only part of the WCT, say just the more benign northern two days, or the more difficult five days heading south, coming in at Nitinaht would be ideal. Permits are easier to obtain for this entry point.
These three entry points are also the only exit points, except for cases of medical evacuation in which a boat or helicopter would come to rescue someone in distress.
I knew that I was going to need every minute of the ensuing 5 months to prepare my body for this trek before hitting the WCT. So I started walking every day. I bought an inexpensive step counter so I could set a goal and keep track of progress. I set my goal at 12,000 steps per day, then modified it to be 75,000 steps per week so I didn't worry about missing a goal any one day. This might not be the answer for everyone, but I found that it helped keep me motivated to hit the numbers.
I calculated that between January 5th (when I decided to go on the trek) and June 18th when we hit the trail, I would walk about 650 miles. Most of that would be in my hiking boots. If anything, I figured that might help toughen up my feet to keep blisters from happening on the trail. As it turned out … zero blisters or even hot spots while hiking the trail. But I took some strips of Leukotape, just in case. Didn't need it.
I started carrying a day pack, loaded with 20 pounds of stuff, to help get my shoulders accustomed to bearing a load. And I decided to lose weight equal to the amount of backpack weight I would be carrying. Since I thought the pack would weigh 35 pounds, that was my weight-loss goal. Eventually, I did lose 25 pounds by following a nutritional protocol recommended by Dr. Jason Fung, which included intermittent fasting and shifting to a more fat-based diet. I won't go into the details here, but I will say that it works and isn't difficult.
During the second month of preparation, I shifted from wearing walking shoes to wearing my hiking boots. This was good, because I was trying to decided which of two pairs of boots I wanted to use for the trek. It was only by spending a couple of months wearing them that it became clear which would be the ones I would take. As it turned out, it wasn't the pair I originally thought would win the contest. Neither pair was new, so they were already well broken in.
I was also evaluating socks and boot foot beds during that time. I discovered that it is every bit as important to break in a new pair of foot beds as it is to break in the boots. Anything that affects your feet will either be a blessing or a curse on the WCT. The foot beds I ended up with were Columbia Montrail. Kind of pricey ($45), but worth the money. The socks I finally decided to take are Darn Tough merino wool. I prefer the light weight sock over the heavier boot sock. That's all personal preference, depending on how your feet feel inside your boots. Nobody can tell you which boots, socks or foot beds to use. Whatever you choose must be comfortable and supportive, especially for this trail.
As my conditioning progressed, I shifted to carrying the actual backpack I would take on the trip. I gradually added weight to the pack until it topped the scale at 37 pounds, and I was doing 4 miles of walking each day, half of it uphill. So I thought I was really preparing for a hike on the West Coast Trail. Hah!
From watching YouTube videos of the trail, I knew there were ladders. So I set up my longest extension ladder in the back yard and started climbing and descending, wearing my boots and backpack. Every time I got home from work, I did 120 rungs — 60 up and 60 down. And I thought I was really preparing for what I would encounter on the WCT. Hah!
Knowing that there would be some long stretches of beach hiking, I did a couple of long hikes on our local beaches. First was a 5-mile hike on a pebbly beach, and that was followed a few weeks later by a 12-mile hike that included 10 miles of sand and 2 miles of forest trail. And I thought that would prepare me. Hah!
I also hiked some local forest trails for about 10 miles. To make a long story short, I tried what I thought was my best to get ready. And my body weight reduced by 25 pounds in the process. I hoped that I had prepared enough. Okay, I have to say it … Hah!
In hindsight, now that I've been on the trail, I will say this — there is nothing that can duplicate the conditions of the WCT, so even the best training efforts will fall short of true preparation. Do the best you can to prepare, but realize that this is a 47-mile obstacle course with some short sections of easy trail interspersed along the way. The up and down climbing, not necessarily just on the ladders, is so continual that it's like going to the gym and doing leg presses with your full body weight plus the weight of your pack … press that weight alternating one leg and then the other continually for about 6 hours. That's close to what your legs are going to do on the trail. Except that the WCT is an endless conspiracy of foot traps and slippery stuff to make you fall. You don't get that at the gym.
Then suddenly, it was June. I was on my way to the adventure of a lifetime.
One of the difficulties about hiking the WCT is just getting there. No matter where you enter the trail, it's a long way from anyplace. Because we were entering at Gordon River, we drove to Port Renfrew and found a camping spot to stay the night before actually getting on the trail the next morning.
It is mandatory to attend a one-hour orientation and safety presentation before Parks Canada will even hand you a permit. And the permit is required in order to get on the trail. At Gordon River, you have to take a "ferry" ride in a small boat to cross the river to access the trailhead. And the ferry operator must see the permit or you can't get on his boat.
The same holds at Nitinaht Narrows, where the trail is interrupted by Nitinaht Lake. The permit must be displayed before you are allowed on the boat to cross the lake to resume the trek on the trail. At the end of the hike, you are supposed to return the permit to the Parks Canada personnel so they can verify that you made it safely off the trail.
We arrived at the Gordon River orientation point in time to hit the afternoon session, which made it possible for us to take the earliest ferry the next morning, which would allow us maximum time on the Day One leg.
That was good, because Day One ate me alive.
Since January 5th, when I started planning this whole adventure, I was hoping to keep it below 35 pounds, but gravity was strong and thwarted my attempt.
Let me tell you … 40 pounds is about a hundred pounds more than 35 pounds. Crazy math, I know, but true nevertheless.
Yes, those are Crocs hanging on my pack. They weigh 13.0 ounces. Leaving them behind would be most of the way toward reducing pack weight by a pound, but they were so comfortable at the end of the day when I could finally ease my feet out of the boots and air out my toes. They were worth every ounce. A guy has to have some luxuries in life.
It's a short ride across the Gordon River to reach the trail head. Even from a distance, it looks ominous. A tall wooden ladder stretches up, up, up from the gravel beach into the deep forest above to reach the beginning of the actual trail. Thirty-five rungs, spaced just slightly wider apart than is comfortable for a normal human being. If you make it all the way to the top, there's a wooden platform that allows you to step off the rungs onto something solid. But the ladder is so truly vertical that it feels like there is no slant to it at all. It goes straight up — and straight down. Thirty-five rungs, and they might be muddy and slippery, depending on who was there last.
If it looks kind of breathtaking in the photo, you should see it from the top. Or the bottom. Stunning from either angle.
By the way, the gloves I chose cost me $10 from Amazon. They have a zipper on the back of the hand, so they can be adjusted to fit just about anybody. I bought the XL size. They're called B-Forest. They're waterproof and very lightweight and grippy, which I like.
On the way up the ladder, Steve suffered a "stinger" in his leg muscle, and we wondered if our trek was going to be over before it really got started. But he worked it out and on we went. He would make a good sherpa jealous.
At the top of our first ladder, the trail takes off at a relatively benign pace, slightly uphill with a few tree roots and foot traps, but nothing spectacular for the first hundred yards. Kind of fools you into thinking, "Hey, this is going to be a piece of cake."
By the way, I hunted all over the Internet to find out how many ladders and rungs there are on the trail. Turns out there are supposedly 72 ladders, but nowhere could I find anything about the number of rungs. So I took it upon myself to keep a record of each ladder and the number of rungs. On Day One between Gordon River and the camp at Thrasher Cove there were 15 ladders and 330 rungs.
I should mention that a few of the ladders on the WCT are missing rungs. If you don't pay attention to where you are placing your feet, maybe because you're taking a selfie and you're smiling up at the camera, you could miss that absent rung, step off into space and die. Pay attention to every step you take no matter where you are on this trail.
The Parks Canada people have posted "mile markers" along the trail. Supposedly, the WCT is 75 kilometers (47 miles) long. A kilometer is 0.62 miles long. That's just a little over a half mile. Being an American, my brain automatically works in miles. And since I spent so much preparation time walking miles and miles, I thought I knew instinctively how long a half-mile would be on the trail. That led me to believe that I could easily figure out when I was going to hit the next kilometer marker. Wrong!
The top of the first ladder is kilometer 75 (the end of the trail, if you're starting from the north). Trust me, it felt like I hiked for hours and hours before reaching kilometer 74. These are the longest kilometers on Earth. Later on, I'll explain why this is so, but my advice about this part of the trail is to not get in a hurry. This first day is the most difficult, and if you rush you'll regret it. At least I did. Your mileage may vary (pun intended).
After a couple hours, I was starting to wonder if I was on the right trail, although there weren't any options. But I was expecting to come to the famous Donkey Engine, a relic from the logging era. How this behemoth got from the beach to where it was near the highest point on the WCT (more than 600 feet above sea level), through dense forest and up a steep slope, is a marvel. Somebody said it actually hauled itself up the slope by using its massive steam-driven winch and cables thick as a man's wrist. Some cable can still be seen where it lies on the ground or suspended in the trees that have enveloped it in their growing trunks.
Not far from this spot, which looks like just a pleasant little forest trail, the path runs diagonally up a violent gash in solid stone. To the left, the hillside drops away precipitously, and to the right the up-slope is impassible. The only way through is to grip some tenuous handholds and delicately scramble up the rocky scar. A misstep here would be disastrous. I stood at the base of this obstacle, stared at it for a couple minutes trying to figure out how to safely navigate — where to grab on, where to put my feet. Then I took a deep breath and climbed. Here's where a ladder would come in handy, I thought. I have watched other hikers' videos and read blogs by those who have fallen here, and it's never pretty. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of that spot because I was too busy trying to get safely through.
Some bridges, no doubt, help preserve the environment, keeping hikers from tromping through sensitive waterways, which would muddy and probably destroy the natural surroundings.
Whenever I came upon one of these boardwalks, I was relieved to be able to walk on a level spot for a few strides. But they were all too quickly behind me and I was faced with challenging terrain again.
No matter how much people try to tame the West Coast Trail, however, nature will always have its way in the end. Trail maintenance crews are faced with a never-ending challenge of their own — to replace things that have been destroyed suddenly by storms and fallen trees, or even just the slow and natural deconstruction of wooden components due to rot.
When catastrophic stuff like this happens, and the regular route is disrupted, they don't close the trail — they just expect you to find your own way to continue. Sometimes, a ribbon of colored plastic tape will indicate the way to go, but how you're going to get through the rough spots is up to you.
Day One, for me, was a day of total effort. After reaching the highest spot on the trail and starting down the killer descent, my thighs cramped tight for more than an hour. The kind of cramps that make you want to scream. But what choice did I have? My legs burned through successive waves of brutal cramps that stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn't move, but I needed to move. Each step down was torture for my thighs. And the downhill stretch was extremely steep and webbed with tree roots that required big steps down.
I had no choice but to push on through the cramps. This lasted for more than an hour, because I was moving very slowly and painfully. Steve had gone on ahead to find a camping spot for us at Thrasher Cove, so I was on my own. Each step locked up the thighs, but I discovered that I could keep going if I just kept going. Kind of a mind-over-matter thing, trying to ignore the pain. It took a half-hour to get down the steep hillside to the stream, where I decided to refill my water bottles and take a break. Then I had to climb up over the next ridge and then descend again before climbing the next ridge.
This portion of the trail into Thrasher Cove was such a difficult battle for me that it totally altered my decision about Day Two, which I'll talk about in a minute.
By continuing to hike, the cramps eventually went away. I was worried that I would spend the whole night awake with leg cramps, but they never returned. Not that night, not the next day, not ever again.
Cramps happen for a couple of reasons. Dehydration, loss of body electrolytes, overworked muscles, exhaustion, etc. I tried to make sure I drank plenty of water, and went through every drop of the 2 liters I was carrying on my pack. Stopping at the creek below the destroyed bridge in the photo above, I used my Sawyer Squeeze filtration system to refill my bottles and drank some more. When I got to camp, I mixed two packets of Emergen-C electrolyte powder in one of my 16-ounce bottles, shook it up to let it dissolve, and drank it. I did that again every morning of the trek, and maybe that's why the cramps never returned.
Although the cramps never came back, my thighs felt as if they had been beat with baseball bats. I was stiff and sore that night, and wondered if I would even be able to get up on my feet for Day Two.
Exhaustion was so complete that I sat, almost catatonic, on a log and just stared at the ocean. Thrasher earned its name, 'cause I was totally thrashed. I couldn't even think about eating dinner. All I wanted was to get the tent set up, crawl in and go to sleep. Obviously, all my preparation had not adequately prepared me for Day One.
As I watched other people in camp, I noticed that they were all moving about much more easily than I was. Almost universally, they were in their 20s or 30s. I was in my 70s, which probably makes a difference. While I felt like a cripple, moving about stiffly, everyone else seemed to have had an easy time of it. The hardest part for me was if I sat down too long and then got up to go do something. The thigh muscles were tight, stiff, and painful until I wandered around and warmed them up by walking.
About 100 yards from our tent site was the bear box (for overnight food storage) and the composting toilet perched on top of a raised platform. Wouldn't you know that to access the toilet, there was a ladder with 10 rungs!
But I have to say that I was truly happy to be in Thrasher Cove that evening. In fact, I have never been so happy to arrive in a camp in my life. It was the end of a very tough day. But there was an element of pure joy in it. When you do something that takes you all the way to your limits, and still survive, to me that is awesome. And Day One on the way to Thrasher did that for me.
All in all, it was a wonderful day. 😀
Let's Talk About Equipment
This is as good a place as any to take a break and talk about equipment for a few minutes. After Day One, I realized that my equipment choices were very much involved in how difficult the trek into Thrasher Cove was for me. I was carrying a 40-pound pack. Some hikers carry more, but for me, this was a struggle. Below 40 pounds would have made the hike easier and even somewhat safer.
- Pack: My backpack was a 40+year-old Coleman Peak One external frame unit. Empty, it weighs 5 pounds. I chose this pack because it was what I had. I owned it since it was new, which made it older than some of our kids. There is a lot of praise I could give the Peak One pack, but newer technology has provided us with lighter backpacks. And it's not only the weight but also the way the pack rides. My Peak One had no chest strap to help keep the shoulder straps from sliding side to side. In short, the pack was not in perfect sync with my body. It could shift sideways and throw me off balance. On the West Coast Trail, that can get you hurt. All of this has me dreaming about something like a 2-pound Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60L pack for future hikes.
- Shelter: My tent is an Alps Mountaineering Zephyr. It's designed for a single person. I made a Tyvek footprint for it, and total weight with the fly and hardware comes to 5 pounds. Would I want something lighter? Absolutely. Maybe a 1.8-pound "The One" tent from Gossamer Gear. That would be sweet, but it costs $300. That's a lot of money to shave off 3.2 pounds from my overall pack weight. So, for the time being, I will stick with my tent. It's long enough for me to stretch out, tall enough for me to sit upright, has a vestibule to keep my boots from collecting dew overnight, and the upper part of it is totally bug netting so the interior doesn't collect condensation. The inside of the fly will collect condensation, but ventilation is good enough that I never had a single drip inside the tent.
- Sleeping Bag: Down is lighter than synthetics. Weight is a concern. But I know that down is worthless when it gets wet. And the WCT is prone to rain, fog and high humidity. What to do? To straddle this conundrum, I bought a 20-degree Kelty Cosmicdown bag that weighs 3 pounds 6 ounces. The down has been treated to be hydrophobic, and overall size will fit a person 6'6" tall. I'm 6'1" so this works for me.
- Sleeping Pad: Campsites along the WCT are along the beach, but we chose most of our tent sites just inside the forest fringe, which helped prevent dew on foggy mornings. So not everything is smooth sand. There are pebbles, rocks, roots, driftwood, and other debris that come into play. So a sleep pad is a good idea. Mine is a Thermarest that kind of self inflates when you open the valve, but is best to help inflate it with a dozen breaths. Weight was 1 pound 9.5 ounces.
So already I'm up to about 15 pounds and that's before I load any food, water, clothing or other essential items.
- Water: I carried 4 pounds of water, distributed among two half-liter and one full-liter Nalgene bottles, hung with carabiners on the sides of my pack. Although the bottles were easy to fill with my Sawyer Squeeze filter system (total weight only 4 ounces — I love this filter) this was not the best strategy. Hanging the bottles meant that I couldn't reach them by myself unless I took off the pack or had someone else unhook them for me. Not only that, but suspending the bottles from the pack frame created a pendulum effect, swinging the pack side to side as weight shifted. Remember what I said about getting out of balance? A better solution would be a water bladder tucked into a dedicated pocket centered in the backpack. And with this much water, which I totally consumed on each leg of the trail, pack weight was now at 19 pounds.
- Food: I carried 11.5 pounds of food, consisting of snack-sized zip bags of trail mix, a Larabar, Tanka protein bar, Epic protein bar for each day, a breakfast packet for each morning consisting of 1/2-cup of oatmeal (with chia seeds, sunflower seeds, coconut oil, and a few raisins), and a Mountain House meal for each evening. Now I'm up to 30 pounds in the pack. I will say this about my food … I took more than I needed. But you never really know, and it's better to have some left over than to run short. My appetite totally disappeared for first 2 days, due to exhaustion, but it came back on the 3rd day. Trail mix is heavy. I'm not sure I would take it again. It isn't as calorie dense as the Larabars, and I have since discovered Paleo bars (at Costco) that are even more calorie rich for the same weight. Fat is essential when you're looking for calorie density, so look for high fat content. The Mountain House meals don't weigh much (4.5 ounces for 540 calories). The down side is that they take up a lot of space in the pack, but I loved them for a hot meal at the end of the day.
- Stove: To heat water for my breakfast oatmeal and my dinner Mountain House meal, I carried a JetBoil and a single fuel canister. Amazingly, that whole apparatus weighed only 1 pound. It's totally self-contained and brings water to a boil very quickly. Worth its weight, in my opinion.
- Trekking Poles: These are absolutely essential. I did run into a couple of hikers who were not using poles, but I cannot imagine doing the WCT safely without them. They saved me from falls many times. Baskets are important, because without them the pole will simply plunge deep into the soft or muddy ground and you'll end up bending or breaking the shaft or you'll be pulled off balance trying to yank it back up out of the muck. I ended up losing one basket on Day Two, so I know what I'm saying here. I also ended up bending that pole when it became stuck in the ground because the basket was missing. It is critical to have a way of conveniently tucking the poles away on the pack when using ladders. You need both hands free to safely climb or descend the ladders.
- Clothing: First line of defense against the elements is clothing. I took a lightweight merino wool pullover as a base layer on top, and Patagonia base layer pants (good to sleep in and wear on chilly mornings). Next up was a fleece jacket, then a Frog Togg rain/wind jacket. I also had a long-sleeve "fishing" shirt, a tech T-shirt, 3 pair of Darn Tough merino wool socks, a pair of Crocs to serve as water shoes and around camp footwear, gloves, gators, a ball cap and bandana (sun protection for neck and ears), and a pair of lightweight fast-drying zip off pants. Of course, not all of the clothing was in my pack. When it was cold, I was wearing most of it, but as soon as I hit the trail each morning, I was down to the T-shirt on top because I heated up quickly and didn't want to sweat. Only on one day did I actually zip off the pants legs, and I used the gators all the time to keep crud and mud from getting in my boots.
- Everything Else: All the rest of the stuff that brought my pack weight up to 40 pounds consisted of small personal items like a headlamp and spare set of batteries, a personal sanitation kit (camp soap and a wash cloth, toothbrush and toothpaste), a small first aid packet (assembled myself in a zip baggie), toilet paper (bring your own to the WCT), some paracord, my iPhone for photos, and a solar power pack (13 ounces) to recharge the iPhone. I didn't bring any kind of bug repellent, and never saw a single mosquito or fly the whole trip. But that's not to say that they don't show up at other times in the season.
The morning of Day Two came early for me. I crawled out of my sleeping bag about 5 o'clock. But that was okay because I had hit the sack around 9 p.m. the night before, so I got a good 8 hours of solid sleep. My legs were stiff and sore, but that was to be expected after the previous day's exhausting hike and cramps. The rest of my body felt fine.
The first thing I did was mix up 16 ounces of Emergen-C electrolyte drink and got that into my system to help combat what I fully expected to be more leg cramps on this day's hike. Next, I made my way to the elevated composting bathroom (you can see it in the photo below), struggled up the 10-rung ladder and then enjoyed the morning breeze and the view of the ocean.
Thrasher is a nice spot. In fact, every campsite along the way is great. If I were to do this trip again, I would seriously consider staying two nights at each site instead of rushing off on the trail again early in the morning after only one night in camp. That would give my body extra time to recover from the day before, and would make for a more relaxing pace. The only problem with this strategy is that I would have to carry double the food, and food is heavy. I could probably get along with 15 pounds of food, but I would need a sherpa. I'm just not the pack animal I was 50 years ago.
For Day Two, options were to hike back up to join the inland trail to Camper Bay, our next overnight camp, or to take the beach route through the infamous boulder field leading to Owen Point. After hearing stories about injury accidents suffered by hikers making their way through the boulders on the beach route, I had already decided not to go that way. But after the brutal descent from the main inland trail at the end of Day One, I changed my mind and decided to take the beach route and just be careful. I did not want to have to fight my way back up to join the inland trail, and would rather face death on the slippery rocks.
To take the beach route, the tide must be below certain minimums, which are posted on the trail map. Our trek in mid-June was perfect from a tide standpoint. It was low in the mornings when we would be starting out. The other factor was the weather. If the boulders are wet from rain or fog or mist, they become extremely slippery, increasing the potential for injury. Under those conditions, it would probably be preferable (safer) to hike inland.
Our Day Two morning dawned dry and the tide was out. So after breaking camp we headed north on the beach. The route took us between the main headland and a small lump of land (photo below) that would be an island at high tide. We picked our way though small rocks and ever-increasing sized boulders.
These aren't the REAL boulders. By comparison, these are pebbles. The real stuff came later, when I was too busy to take photos because I was just struggling to stay alive and upright.
I asked Steve, "Is this the infamous boulder field I've heard about?"
He smiled, "You'll know when we're in the boulders."
I took that as a no.
And, sure enough, the real boulders were about a half hour ahead. And, sure enough, I knew when we got to them. It's a chaotic mixture of boulders that range in size from a baby buggy to a bass boat to a Bugatti. Kelp that has washed ashore is trapped between some of them. They've all be underwater about half their lives, so barnacles have grown on some surfaces. Others are covered with a coating of marine slime that puts axle grease to shame when it comes to lubricity. Step on those spots and down you will go. The best traction is on the barnacle-covered surfaces, but you don't always have that option.
Trekking through the boulder field is tricky at best. There is no distinct track to follow. If others have hiked through, there is no evidence of where they stepped. You're on your own to pick your route. Numerous times, we had to backtrack. Sometimes, Steve went one way and I went another, thinking it was a better option. At times, I stood and watched as he went ahead, and then he would wave me off to go another way and turn to follow me. It's a puzzle, a maze with no clear way to safely pass through.
Every boulder is more or less round, and every step was taken tenuously, testing the surface for traction before committing to complete the stride. The weight of the pack made it all the more risky. At one point, I took a giant step forward, my eyes focussed on the next boulder I was intending to land on. Unfortunately, the move was made without full commitment and the momentum I needed. As I shifted my weight to the new rock, I raised my head to look where I was going next, and with just that slight shift in my balance, my forward momentum stopped and the weight of the pack pulled me backward. I fell hard onto the boulder behind me. The good news was that the pack took all the impact, except for my left wrist that hit the rock and caused a bleeding gash.
I shed my pack, inspected the damage, and grabbed an adhesive bandage to stop the leak, Then we continued. A valuable lesson was learned. Shifting pack weight can take you down in a heartbeat.
Parks Canada issues each hiker a copy of the tide table when the permit is purchased. They stick the tide list on the weatherproof WCT map, so you can refer to it when making the decision about whether to hike the beach route or the inland trail.
Navigating a wild coastal beach like this one is tricky. It seriously tests your route finding abilities. The logs are like giant pick-up-sticks that have been scattered randomly. With each high tide, especially during off-shore storms, the logs can be picked up on waves and rearranged as they slam back onto the beach among the boulders. No matter how many times you do this hike, the landscape can be different each time.
Sometimes you can climb over the logs, and at other times you might choose to walk on them for a certain distance as they serve as an expedient bridge before you climb back down onto the boulders. And sometimes you have no choice but to find a way to make an end-run around a maze of giant timbers.
After leaving the boulders and logs behind, the other component to the beach trail is the sand. Deep, loose, frustrating sand that swallows your foot with each step. Most of it is chunky sand mixed with tiny pebbles, that offers very little surface support for your boots. Some hikers carry lightweight trail shoes with wide soles that are supposed to offer more flotation on the loose sand, but I'm not sure it really matters much. Hiking in this stuff quickly sucks the energy out of legs. I found the trekking poles to be useful to help propel me forward as I was pushing through the loose sand.
The big attraction on Day Two along the beach route is Owen Point. This is a spot where the landscape dog-legs northward, exposing the beach even more to the wind and waves coming off the open Pacific Ocean. Over time, erosion has carved an intricate labyrinth of caves, arching windows, and inlets that are accessible only at low tide. If you're likely to see other hikers, this will be the spot, as everyone stops to take photos and explore the caverns.
While the beach portion of the trail Between Thrasher Cove and and the next campsite at Camper Bay is preferred by most hikers because you're not fighting roots and mud and ladders and endless elevation gain and loss, there are still challenges. They consist primarily of the hazardous boulder section and the exhausting deep sand. There are places where exposed relatively level rock shelf can be hiked, although some of that is wet or even submerged with tide pools. And caution needs to be exercised to prevent slipping and falling on the slimy surface.
The rock shelf along this stretch of beach is cut through by numerous surge channels where incoming waves have carved deep chasms. Some of these are narrow enough that they can be crossed fairly easily (not the one pictured here). But it's always advisable to remove your backpack and toss it across before trying to step over, in case you slip and end up in the abyss.
Some surge channels are pretty dicey. They're deep and wide. The water rushes in and flushes out swiftly, and if you were to end up in the water you would be carried out with the current.
And there are some that must be bypassed entirely by climbing ladders that are indicated on the map as beach access points and taking the forest trail.
If you are caught on a non-trail segment of the coast when the tide comes in, there's no way out. Vertical cliffs, unforgiving boulder fields, and some rocky overhangs are impenetrable obstacles that would hold you hostage, trapped by the incoming tide.
Low tides are roughly six hours apart, so if you get trapped by a high tide, you could be stuck for half a day before you would be able to escape. And that's the best case scenario. We don't even want to talk about a worst case scenario.
The inland trail is gradually being reclaimed by Mother Nature. Boardwalks that were once built to cross mud bogs have rotted away, leaving hikers to pick and choose where to step.
During our hike, we were lucky to have dry weather, with only one day of light drizzle. And even so, there were some large areas of mud. We were able to find ways around most of them, but sometimes we tip-toed across the worst of it, stepping on bits of wood or whatever else we could find to keep from sinking too deep in the muck.
But during seriously rainy weather, these spots can become wall-to-wall mud pits that will swallow hikers half-way up to their knees. This is one reason hikers are encouraged to wear gators, to keep mud and other debris from getting into boots.
After we left the beach and climbed a ladder up to the inland trail, we were on a narrow path between thick undergrowth, picking our way along mostly rotted old boardwalk.
When boardwalks crumble, trail maintenance crews are busy trying to keep up with the decomposition. It's an endless job on a trail this long and in an environment as damp as a Pacific Northwest rainforest.
No, these guys are not trail maintenance crew members. Left is my hiking buddy, Steve, and the guys on the right is Scott, a solo hiker who linked up with us for parts of the trail. Scott got a campfire going every night that became a social center where we met folks from as far away as Germany who came to hike the WCT.
Here the trail repair crew had cut a section from a fallen tree so hikers wouldn't have to crawl over or under. Note the condition of the boardwalk. There was a lot of boardwalk that looked just like this, or worse. But there were also some places where the boardwalk was almost new.
There were several places where trees were simply left in place across the trail, forcing hikers to squat down and crawl beneath them.
In one of those spots, I had to remove my backpack and crawl through, then pull the pack under the tree after me. And in one spot, with my head down and my eyes focussed on where I was going to place my feet, I was suddenly stopped dead in my tracks as the top of my pack struck a small tree that had fallen across the trail. Missed my head, but not the pack. Sometimes it's a good idea to look up and see what kind of cranial damage awaits.
Fallen logs served as expedient bridges in some spots, with no other option. If you wanted to keep going, you had to hop up on the narrow log with its uneven and sometimes slippery surface and put one foot in front of the other, doing your best to keep your balance. Some log bridges are so narrow that you can't really use the trekking poles to help maintain balance. Some looked to be about 80 feet long and spanned chasms 20 feet deep. Fall here, and you're gone.
Eventually, we came to a series of ladders leading down to Camper Creek, where we crossed by stepping on exposed rocks to reach the campground on the other side. The option is to use the cable car, which would be the best choice during periods of high water in the river.
We found a couple of tent sites just inside the fringe of forest near the beach and set up for the night.
For me, today's hike was technically challenging but not as exhausting as Day One. The beach hiking, while stressful because of the boulders, was easier on my legs. There wasn't as much vertical this day, compared with Day One. So, to this point in my WCT experience, if someone were to ask me about the toughest day, I would say that Gordon River to Thrasher was by far the most difficult. Thrasher to Camper, via the beach route, was hard in different ways, but still easier than Day One. The deep beach sand saps energy and tests the glutes, which was different than the way the climbing and descending challenged my thighs and knees on the first day.
Speaking of ladders, I kept a daily log of how many ladders there were each day, and how many ladder rungs we had to climb or descend. I read that there are 72 ladders on the WCT, but nowhere could I find out how many rungs there are to climb and descend.
Some ladders, I discovered, are relatively short with only half a dozen rungs. I'm almost reluctant to include them in the total count, but I did anyway. And then there are the seemingly eternal ladders that stretch up into the forest canopy and seem to disappear into the sky. One series of ladders (on Day Three) had 273 rungs! That's a leg burner. And when you get to the bottom of that one, you cross a bridge and then have to climb out on the other side of the canyon. Guess how many rungs were on that side? What goes down must go back up. Whew!
On Day One, from Gordon River to Thrasher Cove, there were 15 ladders and 330 rungs. Compare that with Day Two, from Thrasher to Camper, where there were only 6 ladders and 151 rungs. That probably had a lot to do with Day Two feeling easier.
From here on, I'll mention the ladder and rung count in my comments about each day's experience.
Day One, for example, from Gordon River to Thrasher Cove, is measured (by Parks Canada) at only 6 kilometers. That's 3.8 miles. However, it seemed a lot longer than that to me. And, in fact, it was a lot longer. Steve was using his Garmin Forerunner GPS to record our times and distances. According to the Forerunner, Day One was 4.91 miles (7.9 kilometers). So there's something amiss with the trail map. And I tend to believe the Forerunner, because it took a long time to cover the distance. And it took me about 5.5 hours to hike that stretch. For perspective, even carrying my fully-loaded pack on flat ground, I can cover a kilometer in about 12 minutes — or about 20 minutes per mile. On Day One, it took me more than an hour to go one mile, if that's any indication of how hard this leg of the trail was for me.
Day Two, from Thrasher to Camper is indicated on the map as 9 kilometers, or 5.6 miles, if you were to climb back up to the forest trail from the campground. But the Forerunner indicated that we actually hiked 8.67 miles (13.9 kilometers) and hiked for almost 9 hours. Of course, we were hiking the beach route that day, not the forest route, so there could be some discrepancy in the mileage. But I've got to tell you that climbing up out of Thrasher would be a leg burner. Hiking the relatively level shoreline was way easier than the constant up and down of the forest trail.
And so it went. Every day, our GPS readings were quite a bit longer than what is indicated on the map. The farther north we went, the less discrepancy there was, though. By the time Steve got to Pachena Bay, the GPS and the map were much more in agreement.
Day Three had its ups and downs, literally.
After a final morning pit stop (10 rungs up and 10 rungs down, of course), the trail begins by doubling back up the creek a little ways to the first of 27 ladders we would climb that day. This was the day with the highest number of ladders and rungs. Total rung count by the time we got to Walbran was 1,110. Yup, you read that correctly. More than a thousand rungs.
There is no beach hiking between Camper Bay and Walbran Creek — it's all inland forest trekking. You cross numerous creeks, canyons and other dips in the terrain along the way, sometimes on real bridges and sometimes on an eternally long and narrow log that serves as a bridge. And sometimes, you just hike down to the muddy bottom and try to find your way without getting swallowed up in the mire.
After crossing the bridge, a long series of ladders was waiting to get us back up to the trail again. What goes down … well, you know the rest of that cliche.
Fortunately, these long series of ladders are interrupted by resting platforms every so often. Only one hiker can be on a ladder at a time, to prevent the "domino effect" in case someone falls or a pack comes loose. And the platforms allow more than one person to be going up or down at a time on the different sections of ladders in the series that are separated by the platforms.
And, in fact, it was this day that the root obstacles brought me to my first injury.
It was one of those places on the trail where I was stepping down through a maze of roots to reach lower ground. I underestimated the distance and the ability of my left knee to flex far enough so my right foot could reach a solid place to step. I inadvertently hyperflexed the left knee, felt the pain and heard the ligament tear. I even said "ouch" out loud.
I will always remember that moment, because this was the instant in time that eventually took me off the WCT.
In this photo, my buddy Steve shows the kind of root obstacles that fill the WCT from beginning to end. It was at a place like this where my first injury occurred. Yes, there were more injuries yet to come, all of which contributed to my leaving the trail on Day Five. But that story is yet to come.
At last, the final set of ladders brought us to Walbran Creek, a very pleasant campsite where we pitched our tents on soft beach sand among huge driftwood logs.
The only complaint I had with our tent site was that access to the composting toilet and the food storage bear boxes was blocked by a wall of enormous logs, which required climbing over or hiking a long way around. That was easy for Steve, but was painful for me with my knee injury. The fact that I didn't mention the injury to Steve probably resulted in additional damage, because it wasn't until the next evening that I had him tape the knee with KT Sport Tape to help take pressure off the ligaments. By then, the knee had swollen to the size of a softball. A Nerf softball, because it was pretty squishy.
Anyway, at Walbran we had plenty of fresh water to filter, a nice tent site, and perfect weather. This was the day my appetite returned in force, and I couldn't wait to devour my Mountain House Lazagna dinner. The knee might have been suffering, but my tummy was very happy.
On Day Four, we hiked the beach for roughly 7.4 miles (12 kilometers), except for a short duration when we ducked inland around Carmanah Point and made a visit to the lighthouse. There weren't very many ladders during this day — only 6, and the total number of rungs we had to climb came to 174. Not a hard day, in that respect.
On Day Four, we were on our way to Cribbs Creek campground as our next stop. There were several creek crossings to negotiate along the way, the largest of which was Carmanah Creek, where there is a cable car available for those who want to use it. We opted to rock-hop across the wide delta where the creek met the ocean, because we were too lazy to climb the ladder to the cable car launch platform and then pull ourselves across.
In retrospect, I wish we had used at least one cable car during our trek, because that is part of the character and reputation of the WCT. But in actuality, with the water running fairly low in the creeks, we never needed to use the cable cars.
One of the most famous visitor attractions on the West Coast Trail has always been the hamburger stand and social gathering place known as Chez Monique. It was large tent structure on the beach just south of Carmanah Point lighthouse. Here, you could buy a legendary hamburger with bacon and cheese and everything else under the sun, to feed your body with something other than freeze-dried camp food after many days on the trail. There were cold drinks of all description, snack foods, candy, and you name it. It was not indicated on the official map, but it was engraved in everyone's plans when hiking the West Coast Trail.
When I asked a friend of mine who hiked the trail a few years ago if he would ever want to do it again, he said he would go just for the hamburger. It was that good. Unfortunately, the woman who operated Chez Monique reportedly passed away recently and the place has now closed down. As we hiked past, I took a photo of the sad remains of this iconic landmark.
Just beyond the ruins of Chez Monique, is the headland known as Carmanah Point, which is passable at beach level if the tide is below 7 feet. We opted to take the ladder up to the inland trail and hike through the forest on a trail that would allow us to visit the lighthouse.
After a while, we came to an intersection where there was a sign pointing back the way we came to Port Renfrew or forward toward Bamfield. As if anyone could confuse the direction of the trail at this point.
Actually, we passed two perfectly good campsites between Walbran and our intended destination at Cribbs Creek. They were the Bonilla Point camp and the Carmanah Creek camp. Either of those would make excellent stopovers for anyone wanting a shorter hiking day. In fact, I did stop at Bonilla Point camp to use the elevated facilities at the top of a 10-rung ladder.
And, in Monday-morning-quarterback mode, if I were to have a chance to hike the WCT again, I would probably plan for shorter days on the trail and more camp stops, to be kind to my legs and preserve my overall energy level. No reason not to do that, unless you're in a hurry.
Ouch — another injury. While we were navigating the forest trail, I managed to trip on a root and fall flat on my face. It was a simple stub of the toe of my left boot that kept me from completing the step over a root system. With my momentum moving forward, and my foot temporarily stopped, the backpack threw me down like a linebacker on steroids.
It's amazing how small an error can cause such a big consequence. As I went down, my left shin took a direct hit on the root, ripping away a sizable chunk of flesh about 5 inches long. There's not much meat on a shin and, unfortunately, I had zipped off the lower portion of my pant legs so I took the hit on bare skin. I laid there, face down in the dirt, taking silent inventory of all my moving parts and wondering if I had enough energy to do a push-up against the weight of that 40-pound pack and get back to my feet.
With a little grunting, I got up, inspected the damage and decided to take care of it later in camp. But, this is exactly the kind of incident that you read about in the news where someone gets a scrape and the next thing you know they die of necrotizing fasciitis (flesh eating bacteria).
As I was analyzing the stumble and fall, I wondered if my knee injury contributed to my inability to get up over those roots more effectively. Entirely possible. The knee was a balloon, and by this time it wasn't working the way it was designed to operate.
|Speaking of roots, here's a photo that shows the complexity of the foot traps |
that are so prevalent on the WCT. Any little mistake in here can lead to injury.
At the end of this forest trail, a ladder returned us to the beach for our final approach to Cribbs Creek campground and the end of Day Four.
After I shed my pack, I dug out the first aid kit and went to work on my shin, cleaning up the damage and applying a dressing with antibiotic ointment to, hopefully, discourage bacteria from getting any foul ideas about eating my flesh.
Then I had Steve take a look at my knee. "Wow, that doesn't look like a normal knee," he said.
"Doesn't feel like one either," I replied.
He pulled out a roll of KT Sport Tape, the stretchy kind that is commonly used by track and cross-country runners, and taped up my knee in a criss-cross fashion to support the joint. It felt better, but by this time it was pretty fluffy and making clicking noise as it locked up when I tried to straighten the leg. Not good.
Unbeknownst to me, at some point along the way, I had also rolled my left ankle. It might have happened at the same time the knee was injured. When I removed my boot, I could see dark bruising down at the sole of my foot below the inner side of the joint. No pain, but plenty of swelling and discoloration. Not a good thing. I was starting to fall apart, and still had three more days to go.
The camp at Cribbs Creek was actually one of my favorites. We found a couple of tent sites just inside the forest canopy where we were protected from overnight dew. A natural breakwater created by a stone shelf kept the sound of ocean waves at a perfect level, just loud enough to provide a pleasant ocean sound but not so loud that it would keep you up all night. There was fresh water in the nearby creek, convenient for refilling my containers. Scott got his evening fire going, people gathered around to share their stories, and it just felt cozy to me.
After packing up and filtering water into my Nalgene bottles for today's hike, we left camp headed north toward Nitinaht Narrows, where we would come to the famous Crab Shack and stop for lunch.
Leaving Cribbs Creek, we hiked across a stretch of beach sand to a solid rock formation that rose several feet above the surrounding ground. This made walking very easy as we rounded a headland that is indicated as possible only at low tide below 7 feet. If the tide is high, there is a beach access ladder system that leads up to an inland trail. but we were able to stay on the beach and out of the forest for now.
The trail going north from here is interrupted several times by beach access ladders that lead to several miles of alternate route through the forest. Between Cribbs Creek and Nitinaht Narrows, I logged only 6 ladders and 157 rungs, so it was pretty easy.
Some of these detours from the beach are intended to help hikers get around headlands or surge channels or other difficult spots along the coast. During our inland forays, we sometimes came to log bridges, so I decided to include a photo of one of them here.
A problem with log bridges, as well as some boardwalks or other wooden ramps and stairways is that they become slick with moss and slime. I was constantly testing the footing before committing my weight and momentum to step forward on these kinds of surfaces. In this photo, an old moss-covered walkway leads to a steeply-angled log in which step notches have been cut, and then on down to a log bridge. Every surface was slick and dangerous. Rather than use the slimy steps, I walked down the trail to the right, but then there was no other choice than to cross on the log bridge at the bottom.
Day Five was relatively easy, alternating forest trekking with long walks on the beach. But my injuries were starting to take a toll on my ability to keep up the pace. My knee wouldn't bend and then straighten the way it needed to in order to negotiate root obstacles, and the swelling was increasing. Knowing that Nitinaht Narrows was still almost 20 miles (32 kilometers) and 2 and a half days from the end of the WCT at Pachena Bay, I had to make a decision.
Nitinaht Narrows is an access point to the West Coast Trail. Hikers can enter or leave the trail at this place. If someone needs to exit the trail after hiking either the north or the south segment, this is the place to do it. And that was what I needed to do.
It was a tough decision. I prepared for 5 months to do this hike, and I really didn't like the idea of having to leave the trail early. But the other thing I didn't like was the idea of knee replacement surgery if I stubbornly continued on to Pachena Bay and ended up destroying a compromised knee.
So, I swallowed hard and made the decision to exit the WCT at Nitinaht Narrows. At age 71 I believe it was the prudent thing to do. At my age, many of my friends have had knee and hip replacements, and I'm just thankful that I'm still using all original parts. And I'd like to keep it that way for future adventures.
When we arrived at the Crab Shack, I spoke with Shelly, who runs the kitchen, and her husband Carl, who runs the boat to take hikers across the Narrows to continue the trail on the other side.
Shelly has the most amazing memory. She remembered Steve from his trip through here the year before. She claims it's because he eats more food than any other two people she normally cooks for.
When I told her I was going to have to leave the trail, she called Carl over and we made arrangements for me to ride with them on their boat to Nitinaht Village at the other end of the lake that evening after they closed down the Shack. The cost of that boat ride was $62.50 Canadian.
And that was how my experience on the West Coast Trail ended. I stayed that night in the only small motel in the Village, and the next afternoon I caught the West Coast Trail Shuttle bus for a 5-hour trip that ended in Victoria at 7:45 p.m. Ironically, the ferry to Port Angeles, Washington (where I needed to go) leaves Victoria at 7:30 p.m., so because of that 15-minute gap in the schedule I had to spend a night in a hotel in Victoria and go home the next day. The nice thing is that my wife met me there and we turned it into a date night. Woo-hoo!
A week after my injuries, I was able to see a doctor to determine what I needed to do about my knee, shin and ankle. His assessment was that I would be able to hit the trail again … eventually.
So, how do I feel about my adventure on the West Coast Trail? Without question, it was one of the most epic experiences I've had. It will forever be an indelible memory for me. Wish I could have finished the whole thing, but I'm thankful I had a chance to do what I did. I consider it a "section hike" on a trail that I had hoped to be a "thru-hike."
What would I do different? From an equipment standpoint, I would not carry a 40-pound pack again. Since my trek, I have discovered ways to lighten the load substantially. I did some shopping around and for my 72nd birthday got some new equipment (thank you honey!). If I were to do the WCT now, with my new equipment, the pack would weigh just under 27 pounds — and that includes food for 7 days, 2 liters of water and a Sawyer filter. The weight reduction process started by buying a Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 backpack that weighs 2 pounds, and comfortably hugs my back without shifting around. A lot of my other equipment has also been upgraded to better and lighter versions. I now carry an Exped Synmat sleep pad that is way more comfortable and lighter than my old pad. I retired my 1-pound JetBoil in favor of a BRS stove that weighs less than 1 ounce, and a titanium 750ml Tokas cook pot — total weight 4.5 ounces. And my new tent is a Lashan 2-person that uses trekking poles instead of typical tent supports, and dropped my shelter weight from 5 pounds to 2.5 pounds. Little by little, I carved off more than 13 pounds of load without sacrificing anything that I need for safe and comfortable backpacking. That makes a huge difference to a guy of my vintage.
From a pace standpoint, I would plan to go slower and stay an extra day in Thrasher to recover from that first day's trek. Having been on the trail once, a second time around would be more familiar. I would know what to expect and how to deal with obstacles. Knowing how easy it is to get injured, I would slow down and pay more attention to foot placement. I would probably go the same direction, south to north. Don't ask me why — I just can't get that trail out of my mind.
Would I want to go again? In a heartbeat. 😎