A year ago today we lost my friend Jim Knee.
Our paths first crossed because of a series of unfortunate circumstances. On a late August afternoon in 2009 I was trail running Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail. At the time, I worked for Microsoft in Redmond, WA and lived in Ellensburg, WA so after clearing my calendar for the week I headed over Snoqualmie pass intending to run a good section of the trail, bivy for an hour or two, then turn around and run back down to my truck. I was pushing for a fastest known time on the trail and making it a routine to climb up to at least the Kendall Katwalk and around Chikamin traverse to Spectacle Lake. Plus, all that daily mileage was counting for pledges and matching for that year’s Washington Trails Hike-A-Thon.
I was on pace and happy. The climb up to Kendall was warm, as I recall, but the air had been clear of smoke and so after pulling the grade I was singing as I used to when I could fill my lungs and belt one out. I chosen to do that run barefoot too, which meant I was spending a lot of time choosing where my next footfall was going to happen.
Tazul had left his first camp near Gravel Lake early that same morning. He was section hiking the whole of the PCT and 2009 he intended to complete section J. Sometime that morning, on a narrow ribbon of sunlit trail above Alaska Lake, Tazul crouched to tie his boot. When he stood back up he became light headed and unbalanced. Add thirty pounds of pack weight and it’s little wonder he fell. What is astonishing to me, even today, is how he stopped.
A snow beaten, windblown tree alone and jutting from a ledge about 18 inches wide some two-hundred and fifty feet below the contoured trail reached out and snatched him from what would have been a 2000 foot cartwheel of death down a scree slope to Alaska Lake. It was a stick with a couple of needles a little thicker than my wrist and about half as tall as me, that’s probably not even there any more, that caught him and he clung to it.
Tazul fell in the morning. I didn’t set off from the trailhead until late that afternoon. The shadows were getting long and the sun was turning things orange and red by the time I heard mistook his cry of “help” for a marmot in the rocks. The SAR helicopter team estimated that he’d been there 11 hours before I found him. They didn’t pull him out until just before midnight.
The good news is that we both made it out of there. Jim healed. We even tried to hike the section together again a couple of years later, although we waited too long and caught some miserable weather. That second three day hike was unfortunately the last time I saw Tazul face-to-face. And make no mistake, I feel the loss.
Ladies and gentlemen, we only get one. My brief time with Tazul, memories of those unfortunate circumstances on that narrow ledge of stone in particular, remind me of this fact on the daily.
I’ve spoken with Jim’s daughter about this, I intend to climb up to that spot on the trail in early August and build a cairn on that spot of trail. It’s to remember him, to remember the ageing hiker who kept on trying even after some really catastrophic setbacks almost killed him, but also to push those memories forward as reminders.
Each stone I stack will fall down given enough time. Weather and wind will push them over and soon enough they’ll blend into mountainside like all the rest. But for a little while the sun will rise and warm them each morning and I’ll remember.