How I Averted Disaster On The Pacific Crest Trail

What started as a day of relaxation and celebration on the Pacific Crest Trail ended with a midnight visit to the emergency room...

Before I set foot at the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, I had been dreaming and planning for my thru-hike since 2018. As my start date neared, I wanted to ensure no stone was left unturned in preparation for my 5-month journey. 

I was mindful of the numerous hazards that could interrupt or even end my hike prematurely. I wanted to be prepared for those scenarios, no matter how unlikely they were. I took a wilderness first aid course, purchased a travel insurance plan, and even reached out to PCT hikers from years past to learn about their on-trail experiences. 

But it was my discovery of the GOES Health app, that saved my trip if not more. Before I go any further, let’s back up for a second. GOES is like having a digital first aid kit in your back pocket, but with the added bonus of having 24/7 access to their team of wilderness medical physicians. In a backcountry emergency, I could jump on the phone or ping a wilderness medicine expert through my InReach to answer my questions, provide instructions to self-treat, and advise myself or my party to evacuate, if necessary. That extra layer of safety empowered me and gave my anxious friends and family back home peace of mind.

Kennedy Meadows is the gateway to the Sierra Nevada –– a PCT hiker’s rite of passage. After 700 miles of slogging through the desert, hikers are greeted by a round of applause from their fellow dirtbags and a rest day to resupply, shower, and commiserate over a buffet spread of greasy burgers, fries, and ice-cold beer before entering the next stretch of trail with renewed energy.

The morning I arrived in Kennedy Meadows, my body buzzed with excitement. This energy wouldn’t last, however. 

Towards the middle of the day, I developed a dull, throbbing pain in my lower right abdomen. I chalked it up to gas. After all, inhaling a double cheeseburger, a basket of fries, two Choco Tacos, a can of Pringles, and a Moscow Mule will probably do that to you.

I carried on with my town chores, but as the day progressed, the pain only intensified. Mild annoyance turned into worry, which eventually gave way to fear. Over-the-counter pain medications weren’t helping. Guzzling water didn’t do the trick. And laying down in my tent did nothing to ease the pain, which, by that point, had reached a fever pitch. 

This wasn’t something I could wait out. I needed help. I opened my GOES app, and called their 24/7 wilderness medicine emergency hotline. 

A calm and controlled voice greeted me on the other end of the line. The doctor immediately assuaged the worst of my fears and offered a soothing presence when panic threatened to overtake me. 

After taking me through a series of questions, my physician ruled out the worst-case scenarios (including appendicitis), advised me on the immediate next steps to take, and helped me locate the nearest hospital. Before I ended our call, my physician asked if he could check in on me to ensure I was okay. I was truly touched by his concern and duty to care. 

I wasted no time gathering my things and asked nearby hikers to help me find a ride down the mountains and into Ridgecrest, the closest town with a hospital. By this time, it was almost midnight, but a local was kind enough to offer me a ride down, and a couple of hours later, I was admitted to the hospital.

After nine hours, a series of tests and a CT scan, I discovered I had a 5 mm kidney stone lodged in my ureter; medicine would help pass the stone. The looming fear that I was watching the end of my hike in real-time finally subsided as my doctor gave me the green light to continue hiking. Two days after being discharged from the hospital, I returned to the Sierra. Trading the sterile, claustrophobic unknown for an unrefined expanse never felt better. 

I am forever grateful to GOES and my doctor, who not only empowered me to make an informed decision about my health care with limited resources but ultimately helped me finish my adventure in good health.

*Photo courtesy of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Ash Czarnota