Every step matters on a hike, especially one that spans 2,600 miles. It was one stumble that cut Bill “Whistler” Monk’s 2019 PCT thru-hike attempt short.
On June 30—Monk’s 60th birthday—he started the morning with a hearty breakfast at Big Lake Youth Camp in Sisters, Oregon. With California and 1,300 miles already behind him, Monk was feeling upbeat when he came to a portion of the trail covered with snow 20 miles later. It was only a short traverse, so Monk kept his microspikes in his pack. But he had barely begun to cross when he slipped off the trail, tumbling over bushes and rocks until a tree stopped his descent.
Monk had fallen nearly 70 feet, and no one was around. When he tried to lift his fully resupplied, 35-pound backpack, he felt sharp pain in his abdomen, and knew he was seriously hurt. On top of it, he’d lost his eyeglasses in the tumble and could barely see. Slowly, Monk inched his way back up the hill, pulling on tree roots and branches while dragging his pack behind him.
During the first portion of his hike, Monk often went hours or even days without seeing another hiker. But on this day, birthday luck was on his side. His grunts and cries of pain caught the attention of a passing hiker, who helped him climb back up to the trail. Soon, a third hiker stopped to assist. Monk’s breathing was shallow and painful. Walking even a little bit felt near impossible, and hiking 15 miles to a trail exit was out of the question. Luckily, Monk had cell service. The two fellow hikers agreed to wait with him overnight until a rescue team could make it in.
That evening, Monk barely slept. He lay in pain, worrying about his missing eyeglasses and thinking about how he could have died. Twelve hours later, a helicopter arrived to airlift him off the trail—one rescuer even found his missing glasses. Monk had suffered two fully broken ribs, bloodied scrapes, and bruised spirits. He was sure his thru-hike was over.
“When I start something, I’m determined to finish it,” Monk says. “But at the time, I really did think, that’s it, I’m done, I’m not going to be able to complete my thru-hike.”
Back at home in Nova Scotia, Monk grew more hopeful about his situation. His doctor prescribed rest so his ribs could heal, but he also advocated for Monk to start adding a little bit of weight to a backpack to rebuild strength. One day 32 days after the accident, Monk walked six miles with a full backpack to his doctor’s office. His doctor gave him the green light to return to the trail.
“I ran home and booked my flight,” Monk says.
The physical recovery turned out to be the easy part. It was the mental challenge afterward that took a toll on Monk. Thirty seven days after what he calls “the incident,” Monk returned to the trail. On his first day back, he logged 22 miles and slept soundly. By that time of year, most of the snow had melted. The next morning, Monk encountered his first river crossing since his fall.
Previously, Monk says, he would’ve hopped and jumped over the rocks without thinking twice. But he considered his ribs, not fully fused yet, and his travel insurance company’s warning that the next accident involving ribs 11 and 12 wouldn’t be covered. One slippery rock or log could end things yet again.
“At that very first crossing, my heart was pounding,” he says. At every river and snow crossing after, fear welled up again. But Monk was determined to finish, even if the trail took him twice as long as it would have before.
“As the days and miles clicked on, I built my confidence,” he says. “My advice to anyone facing this same challenge is to face that fear and get back in the saddle.” On August 31, two months after the fall, Monk reached the PCT’s northern terminus.
Aside from the mental and physical barriers, Monk says he couldn’t have recovered without the encouragement of others. That includes his wife, Annie, who gave him her full support. It includes his doctor tending to his healing. It includes the strangers who gave him a ride from the airport and a place to sleep the night before he returned to the trail. It especially includes the two hikers who found him in his injured state and stayed by his side during that restless night waiting for rescuers and the rescue team who found his glasses and airlifted him to the hospital.
“You can’t do this on your own,” Monk says. “You can’t successfully thru-hike a 2,600-mile trail without the support and love of family and friends and strangers.”
Monk plans to hike the Continental Divide Trail in 2022 to achieve his goal of becoming a Triple Crowner.This time, he’ll be accompanied by a friend. Read more about his 2019 hike in his new book, Whistler’s Way: A Thru-Hikers Adventure On the Pacific Crest Trail.