YAKIMA – For a Selah father and daughter taking on the challenge of hiking from Mexico to Canada, the highest point in the “Lower 48” turned out to be the lowest point of the journey.
It became the beginning of the end of the 2,670-mile Pacific Crest Trail trek for the father, Kem Russell. That was where the pain began.
He would suffer through another 500 trail miles before accepting the unacceptable – that this wasn’t simply a case of his body rebelling against the daily grind of 20- to 25-mile hikes with a hefty pack.
One foot tendon was so badly torn it was like a strand of fraying rope. Another had simply ruptured. Between the two, that meant surgery. Crutches. An ankle brace.
And, perhaps worse, it meant his daughter would have to hike the rest of the trail without him: nearly 1,400 more miles, what remained of northern California and then all of Oregon and Washington. From the southern end of the Cascades all the way to Canada.
And Karra Russell, all 5-foot-2 and 116 pounds of her, was determined to do just that.
Why not do Whitney?
From the beginning, Kem had been just as determined. Perhaps more so.
“If I did it by myself, I never would have made it. My dad had all the self-discipline,” says Karra. “But I got used to the life. So by the time he was gone, I knew how to do it.”
The Russells had been hiking at 10,000 feet in the High Sierra for a week by the time they reached the turnoff to Mount Whitney, and choosing to leave the PCT to crest its 14,505-foot acme was a no-brainer for Kem.
Not for Karra. They were in a long stretch between food-replenishing mail drops so their packs were full, and they were also both carrying a bear-proof food canister that made the packs unwieldy – and, in Karra’s case, painful.
“I was completely exhausted the whole time we were in the High Sierras,” Karra recalls. “The bear vault was jabbing me in my lower back, so I couldn’t go more than an hour at a time, and my pack was so heavy. It really isn’t meant for carrying more than 30 pounds, and I was carrying more than 45.”
So Karra had little interest in rising with her dad at 4:30 a.m. for the 17-mile round trip to Whitney’s summit. She did, though, and it turned out to be well worth it – from soaking in the breathtaking alpenglow of the rising sun on the ascent to having cell phone service on the top.
On the descent, though, something happened to Kem’s left ankle. He doesn’t remember turning it, but it definitely took a turn for the worst.
Continuing on alone
After Mount Whitney, Kem, 66, awoke to pain every morning, and the foot and ankle would ache each evening for the last several of the day’s 20 to 23 miles. When he woke up with a badly swollen ankle near the northern California town of Quincy, though, he knew he had to leave the trail, if only to assess the damage.
“That was a little teary for me,” Kem says. “Karra says, ‘I’m gonna keep going,’ and I said, ‘You probably should.’ When we parted, I kind of choked up a little bit. I suppose as a father, I got a little concerned, but we’ve hiked several years on PCT sections in Washington together.
“She’s very capable.”
But she was also alone, and that was new.
“I guess I was a little scared, because I’d never hiked by myself or camped by myself, in my whole life. Never,” Karra says.
“But even before we left, I told myself I’m going to do it. Even if I want to quit, I’m still going to do it.”
So she did, rising daily at first light and hiking until close to dark.
“Twelve hours was my minimum,” she says. “If I’m leaving camp at 7, I have to hike to at least 7 – but most of the time, it was light until like 9:30.” So she would hike until 9, giving herself time to pitch her tent – sometimes doing so by the artificial light of her headlamp.
Getting creeped out
As for the tent, it really wasn’t much more than a security blanket.
“If the weather’s nice, there’s no need to set up your tent for security issues, if you can’t sleep without walls around you,” she says. “If I’m sleeping with someone next to me, it’s OK, but if I’m by myself, there’s no way I’m cowboy-camping. I love my false sense of security with my tent around me.”
She only saw a handful of black bears on the trip, and the only one close enough to scare her instead bolted as soon as it saw her. She saw a bobcat in Oregon, and it, too, scurried away.
“One of my big concerns wasn’t animals. It was people – especially weirdo guys who creep you out,” Karra says. “There was one weirdo guy; I was hiking with two other girls that day, and he was following us, talking to us. He was saying he’d just broken up with his girlfriend and was so lonely, and he was asking one of the girls, ‘How often do you hike alone?’
“Just completely weird vibes.”
For much of Oregon and Washington, though, Karra didn’t have to hike alone.
A friend from back home hiked with her for nine days in Oregon, after which her sister, Diana Layton, hiked the next nine days. And for most of Washington, Karra hiked with an Israeli man she’d befriended over time after seeing him off-and-on since the Sierra in California.
His trail name was “Ram.” Karra was “Red Feather.”
Getting past the fires
Long before Ram and Red Feather got there, they knew Washington’s wildfires might prevent finishing the state’s 514-mile stretch of the PCT.
“Everyone on the trail was always talking about fires,” she recalls. “Like, ‘What are you going to do?’ ‘What am I going to do?’ ‘Have you heard any news about it?’ Constantly.”
That reached a head when the two hikers reached Stevens Pass, at which point the PCT from Stevens Pass to Stehekin was closed because of the trail’s proximity to the Blankenship Fire.
So Kem – by now recuperating from his surgeries – picked his daughter and Ram up at Stevens Pass, drove them to Chelan, from which they could take the Lady of the Lake boat ride to Stehekin and complete the hike.
The following morning, though, the Stevens-to-Stehekin stretch was reopened, so Kem called Karra to see what they wanted to do.
“We had done the section from Rainy Pass to Stevens pass the year before, but Ram hadn’t,” Kem says. “So they discussed it and decided to go back to Stevens.”
So Kem hopped back in his car to drive them back, so they could finish the whole thing.
Doing most when you could do all just wasn’t an acceptable option.
Weight of achievement
Yes, Karra Russell finished the PCT.
Does she feel superhuman after all of that hiking? Hardly.
“I feel like I’m 65,” laughs Karra, who had her 27th birthday in Yosemite, not even halfway through the PCT.
“I thought I would feel like a hiking god after a month, but not at all. All my joints are achy. I thought I would feel like I’m in amazing shape, but no, not even close.”
She didn’t lose weight, either.
“I actually weighed myself every time I had a chance to see if I was losing weight, but I didn’t. If anything, I gained weight,” she says. “That’s what happens with most women on the PCT; they don’t lose the weight. But men, their weight just falls off. Some guys (on the trail) just looked like Holocaust survivors, and the women stayed like they were, basically.”
Well, no, not the same. On the outside, maybe. Not on the inside.
“I would say (hiking the PCT) was the best thing and the worst thing. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Karra says with a laugh. “No, seriously, you want to learn perseverance? You want to find out what you’re made of?
“Go out and do it.”
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