Hardcore hiker John-Charles Shafer set a high bar for a potential life partner. Literally. He wanted to find someone who could climb the 4,000 feet in two miles to Mailbox Peak, perched high in the Cascades. Chelsea VanDeBrake — a teacher at Skyline High School in Sammamish and a former cross-country runner at Washington State University — rose to the occasion.

Selfie extreme hiking in the mountains

The two — who had begun dating after they met at Postdoc Brewing in Redmond — conquered the “old” Mailbox Peak trail together in September 2016.

Shafer, an arborist by trade, began his amateur hiking career at age 17, loving both the challenge and solitude of the activity.

“I’m in a tree all day or pulling brush,” said the 28-year-old Shafer. “Hiking feels like a break.”

While many of his buddies were willing to hike with him, few had the stamina or desire to go as extreme as he did. Many times, those friends would get a change of heart halfway up trails, and the group would have to turn around.

“If one person is uncomfortable, I’m not going to keep going,” Shafer said. “At that point, it becomes not fun.”

Luckily he found his hiking soulmate in VanDeBrake, 29. For her, it’s all about making it to the destination.

“I am very competitive,” she said. “If we are going to a lake, I’m going to make it to the damn lake if it kills me.”

One of those difficult trips happened recently on a trek to Surprise Lake. The pair — who are now engaged — found the hike was much more difficult than they had anticipated, and they had to retreat due to snowy conditions.

Many hikers in general avoid snow-covered trails, but this Redmond couple revels in the challenge — even if that means losing the trail in the snow and occasionally slipping into tree wells.

extreme hiking with dogs at Buck Creek PassThey experienced both those problems on the Surprise Lake trip, but they were able to navigate the duo out of trouble by looking for cut logs and flat spots on slopes.

“Basically, you are lost the whole time if you can’t see the trail,” he said. “You have to use good judgment.”

When group hiking in the snow, keeping the number of footprints to a minimum is important, otherwise there are footprints everywhere and you can’t backtrack, Shafer explained.

“I make arrows in the snow with my boots, and use pink ties that I untie on the way down,” he said. “All the GPS technology helps too, but often the trees are so thick that you can’t use your GPS.”

The Redmond couple brings elevation watches and maps. They also pay attention to creek locations.

“If you have a creek on your right, you try never to cross it,” VanDeBrake said.

On descents, the couple often runs into less-experienced hikers who are just getting started up the hill.

“We don’t want to discourage anyone,” said VanDeBrake. “But we do try to give them a realistic estimate of the time it will take them to get to the top.”

Shafer added that it’s about knowing your limits and reading the trip reports before you head up.

Their most challenging and humbling hiking experience so far was an isolated, roadless 78-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail between Stevens and Snoqualmie passes.

For the trip, Shafer and VanDeBrake packed dozens of pounds of gear on their backs, and took their two dogs, who packed their own food.

On the trail, they ran across only a few hikers each day, many hiking the entire 2,659-mile stretch between Canada and Mexico.

They also encountered several solo women, and some solo men, all with “trail names” like “Hummingbird” or “Echo.” One solo woman was running the trail, doing about 50 miles a day.

And they also encountered a cougar.

“Before that, I was pretty confident,” VanDeBrake said. “But then I realized we’re pretty small in the scheme of things. We are out there where it’s very isolated, and we’re in the cougar’s hunting zone.”

The Pacific Crest Trail helps one to define what’s important in life, according to Shafer. “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty. That’s what you think about,” he said. “If you can survive for six days with just the 35 pounds of gear you carry on your back, you don’t really need that much stuff.”

The couple made a lot of dump runs when they got back.

VanDeBrake said the solitude also allows for a chance to think.

“No technology or work to distract you,” she said. “You’re sharing a tent. You get to know each other really well.”

The couple plan to say their vows Aug. 3 in the shadow of Mount Si and hope to win a lottery spot to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier for their honeymoon.


Gotta Get the GEAR

hiking gear

  • Tent
  • Water filter
  • Gas fueled portable stove
  • Camelbak water bladder
  • Hiking Boots
  • Sleeping bag (rated from zero to 20 degrees)
  • Sleeping pad
  • Map (physical and digital)
  • First aid kit
  • SPOT tracker
  • Comfortable backpack