You don’t choose what to write—it chooses you.Thor Hanson
In 1985, while in my mid-thirties, I set out to do a ten day trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, joining it south of White Pass, and ending on the south side of Mt. Adams. These days such a journey would be called a section hike, but there was no section hiking then because almost no one made the long journey from Mexico to Canada in one season, what now would be called thru hiking. There was indeed no specialized vocabulary for the hiking experience at all, no sobo or nobo, no trail names, no ultra lite packs, no trail towns or angels, and far fewer rules. I was just a hiker. I liked it that way.
I had not hiked this section of the PCT before, so I was excited about the adventure that awaited me, though by then I had hiked most of the northern half of the state on the trail. My twin daughters were eight-years-old and still spending time with their dad for extended visitation every summer. I was doing contract work, which meant I had no benefits and certainly no paid vacation, but I managed to save a little money each month so that one week out of every year I could go off into the mountains alone. Everything in my life seemed to revolve around that one week… my job, my daughters, how I spent my money, how I spent my time. Though I did plenty of weekend and day hikes, this one week out of every year was my chance to sort out my life and mostly to get away from it on a wilderness trail, with all the challenges that presented.
I joined the PCT from a side trail, beginning at Packwood Lake, and ascending to Egg Butte, a treacherous stretch of trail that is now called the Knife’s Edge. Along this trail and not far from where it joined the PCT, I saw a cross held in place by rocks. There was no sign, no explanation for this unexpected reminder that people sometimes die on trails, but I learned later that day why it was there. At the base of Old Snowy Mountain, and not far from the highest point on the PCT in Washington, I made my first camp at a shelter whose name honored the teenage girl who had died there.
The sturdy shelter was made of rocks. It was the kind of structure that was meant to endure the elements, and I quickly learned why it was there. On the outside of the shelter was a plaque that told the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who had died in a freak August blizzard. Her name was Dana Yelverton, and she had died of hypothermia while backpacking with a church group of adolescents in 1962. At some point on that day she had become unable to walk. Her hiking companions carried first her pack, then Dana on their backs, taking turns. When they tired and were no longer able to carry her, they lay down next to her on that place where the cross would one day stand, but sometime during the night she died in her sleep.
I sat next to the shelter and read the plaque. On that day twenty-three years after the tragedy, I was on my first day of a hike and felt unencumbered by the usual burdens of life. It was a beautiful day, and I was on a ten day trek in the mountains. Even at that elevation, the air was warm, the sun bright and shining overhead, the sky blue.
I was a hiker, but also a mother, and I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the Yelverton family when they received the news of their daughter’s death. I began to think of my own daughters. There were of course no cell phones in the mid-eighties and no way to contact me should an emergency occur at home, also no way to let my family know should my own life be in danger. These were the risks hikers accepted when they went out on the trail.
I pitched my tent near the shelter, spent one night at that lofty and lonely place, and the next day was on my way south, headed for Mt. Adams. Unlike the blizzard conditions that had ravaged that group of teenagers twenty-three years earlier, I had perfect conditions for that trip. Not a single drop of rain fell in ten days, and everyday I hiked in sunshine. Trips like that in the mountains of western Washington are rare. The memory of that hike remains as one of my most precious. I didn’t think much about blizzards and hypothermia after departing the high country of the Goat Rocks Wilderness. There was too much sunshine to think about such things.
Thirty years later I would return to the Goat Rocks Wilderness while hiking the Washington section of the PCT north bound with my daughter Leah. She was thirty-eight years old then, a middle school physical education teacher, certainly in far better shape than I was at sixty-five, and yet she was still my little girl, and again I found myself worrying about her. We were ascending to a section of trail that is some of the most treacherous anywhere on the PCT. There we would traverse the Packwood Glacier, where hikers ahead of us had been digging in steps to provide secure footing on the steep slope. The steps were comforting, but a slip on the snow could very well have been fatal. I walked ahead, as if this would somehow make the route safer for my daughter. I was too afraid to take my eyes off the trail and turn my head around to look at her, so periodically I would shout out, “You okay Leah?”
She would reply in return, “I’m fine Mom.”
A few minutes later, “You okay Mom?” and I would follow with, “I’m fine Leah.” This banter continued until we made it to the north side of the glacier and sat down and sighed heavily. It was there I told her my memories of the Dana Yelverton story and the shelter. I had thought it best not to tell her before we crossed the glacier. I suggested we consider spending the night there, which would give us a break between the glacier and the still more dangerous Knife’s Edge that was awaiting us.
When we arrived at the site near Old Snowy Mountain, there was nothing left but a rubble of rocks to mark the site where the shelter had once stood. There was no plaque, nothing to remind hikers of how a trail at this elevation can be unforgiving. In that year of drought there was also no water source nor even wildflowers in bloom in the meadow, the result of multiple years of insufficient snowpack to protect them from the frigid winter temperatures at this elevation.
Thirty years earlier I had not exactly been foot loose and fancy free, burdened as I was by the demands of being a single mother and making a living. Yet at that moment with my daughter nearby, I realized that I had brought her into a world whose threats were far more onerous, a world without wildflowers.
We continued on, making our way along the ridge that is the Knife’s Edge, a narrow trail with crumbling tread and thousand foot drop offs on either side. We kept up our call and response: “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” Again I was too afraid to look behind me. We delayed lunch until we made it to Packwood Saddle. I thought it might make digestion easier. Other hikers we met seemed to think the Knife’s Edge was no big deal. I wondered how much of that was bravado, how much of it naïveté. Leah and I made no apologies for our fear. It seemed like a good thing to have along on such a trip.
About a week later we arrived at Snoqualmie Pass, the halfway point on our trip across Washington. We got a hotel room, where our family met us, then as soon as I had the opportunity I grabbed my cell phone to do a Google search for Dana Yelverton. I found nothing. I tried “Dana Yelverton Shelter PCT” and various other permutations but never found any reference to the tragic event, nor to the fine shelter that was built in her honor. It was like it had not occurred, and I began to question my memory. Had I just made up the whole story? But what about the rubble of rocks, the remains of the structure that once provided shelter from the elements for stranded hikers? Did anyone but me remember this story?
The mystery has troubled me from time to time, but it was a long time ago in my own life, and even longer in the lives of the teenagers who were on the trail in a blizzard in 1962, which probably explained why no reference could be found on the internet.
So it was, just a week ago when I happened to listen to a sad but moving interview with Cathy Tarr, founder and director of a non-profit group called the Fowler/O’Sullivan Foundation, named for two hikers who went missing on the PCT and who have never been found. The organization searches for missing hikers and provides family support as well as education for hikers about the dangers of the trail. The inspiring interview led me to make another attempt to search for the story of Dana Yelverton. I had no difficulty this time. The account was written by a woman named Vicki Sanders Corporon who had been on that fateful hike so many years ago. She published the account in a family newsletter, and it was included on a website/blog called jaysjourneys.com. It surprised me to read one of the comments at the end of the story: “Did you just make that up? How the heck do you know that? So random.”
Is it so difficult to believe that mountain trails can be dangerous? Perhaps we need more crosses by the side of the trail as reminders. Perhaps we need another shelter to remind us that there are blizzards occasionally in August.
Whenever Leah and I talk about that hike, inevitably the Knife’s Edge is the first topic that comes up. That’s the thing about fear; it gives us a thrill. But it does this too: It reminds us of what we most cherish, loved ones and wildflowers in mountain meadows. I think about our banter as we made our way across the glacier and later across the jagged narrow ridge top. When I shouted to her, “You okay Leah?” and she would reply, “I”m fine Mom,” what we were really saying to each other is this, “I love you Leah,” and “I love you Mom.”