I stayed injury free during my last 8 years of technical canyoneering. Then, I sprained my ankle in Cypress Canyon in Vancouver, British Columbia. It put a damper on my adventures for a couple weeks. I took supplements, iced my ankle, rested it, and prepared it for my next canyoneering and backpacking trip. This trip was only three weeks after the injury, and sprains typically take 4-6 weeks to heal. I was really pushing it, but once I was able to balance on my injured ankle I decided it was ready for canyoneering. I still felt some pain when I bent my ankle at certain angles, but it was mild and I felt I wouldn’t hurt it more by taking it through some technical canyons.
It probably wasn’t the smartest idea to begin canyoneering so soon after the sprain, but I really wanted to attend Mossfest. Mossfest is a Labor Day canyoneering fest in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ironically, this fest would come to be jokingly known as “ankle-fest”. Two other canyoneers at Mossfest fractured their ankles and had to limp out of the canyon in pain. Both times I happened to be wearing an ankle brace from my previous sprain and was able to take it off and give it to my injured partners so they could wear it as they exited the canyon.
Also, I really wanted to do a 50 mile coastal backpacking trip with Brian after Mossfest. We planned to hike the West Coast Trail, a fantastic route through coastal rainforest and along beautiful beaches. I wasn’t sure my ankle could handle it, though. Then, on day two of Mossfest, I discovered ibuprofen. Having never been injured, I had no idea how effective it could be. I descended Cypress Canyon (the canyon where I originally sprained my ankle) with the help of ibuprofen and had a great day of canyoneering with very little pain. After that, I decided I could get through the West Coast Trail with my injured ankle. No problem. I would just bring plenty of extra strength ibuprofen.
I now know this wasn’t very smart, but Brian and I were still able to complete the entire 50 mile trail in only 5 days. The average time to complete the trail is 6-7 days. The West Coast Trail is a serious undertaking. Only about a third of it is easy beach walking. The rest involves boulder hopping on slippery rocks, crossing rivers and gorges in small cable cars, hiking up and down steep hills where the mud can be knee deep, and traversing rotten boardwalks that can give way at any moment. There are also 50+ ladders to climb, some of them very long and steep with plenty of exposure and an occasional missing rung. This is a trail for adventurers only, not an easy coastal stroll. If you’re going to attempt something like this when you’re injured, which I wouldn’t recommend, you had better bring along a few things:
1. Plenty of ibuprofen and maybe some Vicodin for backup in case the pain gets a little too epic. I didn’t resort to taking the Vicodin but at least it was there if I really needed it.
2. A good attitude, because there will be pain, no matter how many pills you eat.
3. An ultralight pack to minimize the effects of the hike.
4. A super strong adventure partner, and one with a big heart, because you will certainly need a lot of support to complete a big adventure while sporting an injury.
Luckily, I had all of these things as I made my way down the trail wearing my ankle brace and a pack weighing only 20 pounds. Brian’s pack weighed about 25, until a couple hours into the first day of the hike when he saw me wincing as I pulled my injured ankle over a log. He offered to carry all of our food at that point. The second day, after 10 hours of technical hiking on muddy trails and climbing about 50 ladders while favoring my ankle, I told him I was very tired. He took the tent and my sleeping pad. On the third day, my injured ankle was very sore.
My good leg was also sore because it had done all the hard moves the day before. Every time there was a ladder to climb or a big step over mud my good leg did the work while my injured ankle followed uselessly behind. I also had a blister forming from wearing wet 5.10 canyoneers for three days. These boots have tremendous traction in slippery conditions, plus they were the only reasonable hiking boot I had in my van at the time. However, once they got wet and I hiked 10+ hours in them, blisters were inevitable. Brian looked back at me hiking in the mud with my injured ankle and blistered feet and saw me struggling. At that point he offered to carry my entire pack.
He continued to carry my pack for most of the remainder of the trail, about 25 miles. My heavy, wet canyoneering shoes swung back and forth on the back of the packs as Brian moved down the trail. He carried both packs up and down tall ladders, through muddy bogs, across slippery logs and over rotten boardwalks. He did it with a smile on his face and every time I thanked him he would just say “really, it’s no problem at all”, or “it’s OK, I want you to enjoy the hike”. I walked along with only my trekking poles, nearly pain free on a gorgeous trail through the rainforest and next to the ocean. Everyone stared at us and made comments like “well, you’re packing light”, or “he’s doing double duty”.
The boat operator in the middle of the trail, Carl, said it had been 20 years since he’d seen someone carrying two packs on this very difficult, rugged route. We had a great time with Carl, exchanging jokes and enjoying a fresh crab, which cost $25 and was worth it’s weight in gold in the middle of a 5 day backpack trip. While sharing the most delicious crab I’ve ever eaten, Brian and I met Kamran, a solo hiker from Vancouver who almost died on the West Coast Trail on day 2. Kamran decided to leap across an 8 foot wide surge channel instead of taking the trail up and around it. A surge channel is a deep cut in the rock next to the ocean where the surge churns in and out. These surge channels are very difficult to escape, as Kamran discovered. First, before jumping, he threw his pack across the channel. The pack didn’t make it and fell into the channel. Kamran jumped in after it and was tossed around for several minutes in the surge. He thought it was his time to die, but then he somehow found just one foothold which allowed him to get up above the crashing water and climb out of the surge channel with his pack. Ironically, once he escaped the channel he was right back where he started and still had to use the trail around the channel. When I said paying $25 for the fresh crab seemed reasonable since backpacking is an inexpensive sport, Kamran heartily disagreed. He had ruined both a camera and cell phone in the surge channel incident. Thankfully, we saw Kamran at the end of the hike. He was still alive and seemed to have enjoyed the hike overall, except for the almost dying part.
On one beach, several people asked Brian questions about the direction of the trail and which route to take. They must have thought he looked very knowledgeable since he was wearing two packs and appeared to be guiding me along the West Coast Trail like some sort of sherpa.
During a couple days we found miles of technical hiking through bogs of mud. I started thinking of the mud bogs as “mud-rapids”. They were like whitewater rapids because you needed to maneuver carefully to keep your feet from sinking into knee deep mud, and sometimes a slip in a mud rapid could mean big consequences. First, we would scout the mud rapid. Identify the holes. Start left, work right, jump onto a slippery log, hope you don’t slip off, cheer if you finish it without getting wet. These mud rapids were very challenging, both mentally and physically. We navigated them for hours and hours on day two, along with many high, exposed log traverses. I came up with a system for rating the “mud-rapids”:
Class 1 – Slippery but easily navigable mud
Class 2 – Some holes but easy to traverse around them
Class 3 – Many holes and many slippery logs and tree roots to utilize during the crossing
Class 4 – Requires maneuvering from side to side over logs, roots and rocks to make it through the mud rapid without a leg knee-deep in mud
Class 5 – Serious consequences if you slip during the mud crossing. Most of the class 5 mud-rapids involved decayed, mangy boardwalks with a big drop below them and some missing boards.
These boardwalks were the only way to cross and some of them were one shred away from falling apart, covered in slippery mud with plenty of exposure beneath them.
The mud-rapids were exciting and also very tiring with my injury. The ladders were well designed, and as long as the wood was in good condition I enjoyed the endless ladder climbing and descending. Some of the ladders were in sad shape, though, and you just had to hold your breath and hope the rotten rungs would hold you and your heavy pack as they creaked beneath your weight.
No wonder there are so many evacuations from the West Coast Trail. This is a serious hike.
There were also some very beautiful, relaxing sections where we got to enjoy easy strolls along sandy beaches with bald eagles soaring overhead. On day two we saw a grey whale feeding in a kelp bed just 40 feet from shore. The whale’s glossy, rounded body would surface every few minutes with a spray of air and then he would go back under water to feed more. We also saw two black bears foraging near the shore one evening. Brian found some fascinating live barnacles which had been washed ashore on a small log. They were Gooseneck barnacles, still alive, their necks waving and mouth parts reaching out for food, confused about their location.
These barnacles formed a colony on the log and then high tide washed them ashore. They were so lively and hungry that I wished I had something to feed them. I guess they would not have appreciated the M&Ms in my pack, since they feed chiefly on plankton.
Overall, it was a fantastic backpack trip, and we completed it on schedule and with plenty of enthusiasm. Reaching the end of the trail on schedule and feeling good felt like quite an accomplishment with Brian wearing two packs and me nursing my injured ankle and painful blisters throughout the second half of the trip. There is usually at least a little drama on a long wilderness adventure, and this trip was certainly no exception.