There’s a funny thing about strangers: they don’t leave when you want them to, especially when you’re stuck with 23 of them for 16 days, with nothing to look forward to except hiking five miles up a snow-covered volcano. As it turns out, Mount St. Helens doesn’t leave when you want it to, either.
“What is hard to endure is sweet to recall.” This French proverb certainly held true during and after my Washington expedition over the summer. The summit of Mount St. Helens wasn’t the only hardship endured on this trip. Rocks, as they did on the mountain, presented a challenge on our four-day backpacking trip along the beaches of the Olympic Peninsula; I slipped multiple times on their slimy saltwater coating, and I soon tired of the sharp angles underfoot. I had never before hiked with a full, heavy, external-frame backpack, which cut into my shoulders and back with every step, leaving visible bruises. The tides, also, were quite an intimidating, unchanging force. We had to time the legs of our journey to make our tide points, but, despite our best efforts, sometimes high water blocked our path.
There were many more hardships to come: next we sea kayaked in the cold Puget Sound waters, which topped out at 48o. The cold and the wet, the main hindrances on this part of the trip, numbed my fingers so that fastening the skirt around the lip of the cockpit was difficult, and left me shivering for long afterwards.
But as we sweated through the hot, dry, desert-like climate of central Washington, rock-climbing and river-rafting, the prior experience seemed like it would be quite welcome. I desperately gripped the sheer rock wall with my hands and feet, but knew that my exceedingly tight-fitting shoes and harness were supporting me. When rafting the Wenatchee River, I faced a new challenge: falling out of the boat. While surfing a wave, a corner of the raft went under, taking on water and nearly flipping the boat entirely. Soon only two people remained on board. After a dizzying experience in the swirling, bitterly cold water, I popped up, breathless, a hundred feet downriver, and the guide, after retrieving the other passengers, paddled the craft towards me.
Rafting more class V rapids on the White Salmon River gave us another challenge. We were in for a rough ride; this river was fiercer than the Wenatchee. The rapids were more intense and closer together, and required a wetsuit and aggressive paddling. Our dubious choice to jump off of a 25-foot bridge later that day didn’t help my already aching back.
These experiences, however straining and draining, were shared with my comrades, bringing us together quickly and neatly. As the proverb suggests, challenge became fun, strangers became friends, and hardships endured became sweet recollections, leaving me hungering for more. By the end of my trip, I realized that hiking five miles up a snow-covered volcano was indeed something to look forward to. And so were the strangers.