I Almost Died Today: Swept Away By a Flash Flood
Today, I almost died. My poles and my thunder thighs saved my life. Please, read and share my story as a precaution to all the hikers out there!
This afternoon, while I was hiking out of the White Mountains after the most terrifying experience I have ever had, I tried to decide whether I wanted to share the true story, or share a version that would not give my mother a heart attack. I decided on the truth. Please don’t show my mother.
Here’s my story:
I’m currently training to hike the Appalachian Trail, beginning next April. Because I only have 4.5 months to complete the trail, I’m going to have to be averaging around 18 miles a day. In order to train my body to be able to do this without getting an overuse injury, I have been gradually increasing my mileage while hiking on the weekends, taking on harder and longer hikes. Because I’ll be hiking most of the A.T. solo, I’ve also been trying to increase my number of solo hikes.
So, the need to train harder, longer and solo led me to my chosen climb today, the infamous Owl’s Head Mountain in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It’s an 18 mile hike through one of the most isolated areas of the White Mountains. The day was SUPPOSED to be sunny and unseasonably warm. I started out on the trail at 6:00 am, about an hour before dawn. I was going to have to hike in the dark at some point that day, so I decided I would rather hike in the morning in the dark, while my legs were fresh. The first few hours were glorious. The trails were clear and relatively flat, something rarely seen- but very much appreciated- in the Whites. I was listening to my audiobook, Wild, and giggling to myself as the author, Cheryl Strayed described her crazy experiences on the PCT. Eventually, I came up to a river crossing. Now, I’ve crossed many brooks, streams, and knee deep rivers before. The most dangerous crossing I have ever done was in Costa Rica when a thunderstorm turned the stream we were supposed to cross into a mid-thigh deep raging river. I looked at the river crossing ahead of me today and thought to myself, “Eh, it can’t be worse than Costa Rica!” and plunged right in.
F***. It was cold, but I took it like a champ. Then it started downpouring. Again, took it like a champ. I waddled across, step by step, slowly finding a secure place for my trekking poles and then moving my feet against the incredibly strong current. As I crossed, the water went from ankle depth to a depth just below my groin, then eventually, back to ankle depth. When I finished, exhausted and frozen, I felt exhilarated. I was about a mile and a half away from the summit of the mountain and I knew I would warm up on the incredible steep climb I had ahead of me.
But the rain kept coming. I mean, really… it downpoured. Then, all of a sudden, there was another river crossing in front of me and this one looked serious. I stopped, confused for a moment. I know people who have done this mountain. It is infamous for the steep ascent up a slide trail, but not its river crossings. These are SUPPOSED to be doable. If people do these river crossings all the time, clearly, I figured, I could too. So, despite the threatening whitecaps of the rapids ahead of me, I waded in. Again, it started out knee deep and seemed manageable, but then it slowly came up to my waist. Almost all the boulders were covered with water and there didn’t seem like any easy area to go through.
Then it happened. Out of nowhere, in a blink of an eye, the water suddenly got much higher and my feet swept up from under me. I was in a flash flood.
My poles came loose from between the rocks I crammed them in and now I was being swept down a raging rapid river, in the most isolated part of the White Mountains, on a trail that would be lucky to have anyone else attempt it that entire weekend. I knew enough about rapids to know that I should keep my feet out in front of me, as high up as I could so I wouldn’t risk my foot getting caught and getting dragged below the surface. Along with this, I stuck my poles out in front of me- the move that saved my life. By luck, grace, or whatever else you want to call it, both of my poles stuck in at the same time and at the right angle that I could stop myself, and get some control. As I floated there for a moment, my body horizontal in the river with my feet pressed against a small boulder just barely coming to the surface of the water and my poles stuck into… something… I looked up and felt the rain falling into my face. I remember being struck by how the leaves were dancing in the air. The trees were dropping them off by the buckets, but instead of falling into the river, they seem suspended above it. The massive flow of energy and mist coming off the river balanced with the storm and gravity. The leaves just danced and danced, never quite falling. Beautiful, I thought.
I got my footing and quickly thought through my options. I was closest to the opposite side of the river, but at this point, my body was numbing, I was shaking violently and I realized that even if I did cross it, I didn’t think I would have the strength to get back across later in the day after my hike. But still, the thought of turning around just a few miles shy of my summit hurt. If I failed this, who was I to think that I could hike the Appalachian Trail?! I tried taking a step onward, realized that I physically couldn’t secure my footing anywhere and decided that I had to turn around somehow and try to go back. Then the realization sunk in… I was stuck. There was no good footing on either side of me. I laughed. Odd, I know, but I laughed at the irony. I was stuck, had no idea how to solve this problem, but yet… I had to, or get hypothermia, cramp up, lose my footing and then… who knows. I thought about Louie Zamperini from the story, Unbroken, a book I had just finished the day before. He had survived the most terrible of circumstances, and upon reflection, it was a mix of his mindset as well as luck that got him through. Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search For Meaning, also flashed through my mind. Survival depended on attitude. I gritted my teeth, picked up a pole and plunged it into the water with such force I shocked myself. It caught, and I slowly moved a foot. Inch, by inch, by painful and energy draining inch, I made my way across the river back to the shore.
When I got out of the river, I realized that my legs and feet were numb. I was shaking so violently from being in the water for so long, that I realized I had to change immediately. I looked into my bag and saw that my clothes were soaked (it was supposed to be sunny and dry all day… remember?!). Still, I took my short sleeve shirt off and put on my wet wool longsleeve and rain jacket (to keep the heat locked in). I began jogging back towards the first river crossing because I needed to heat my body up as fast as I could. After a few minutes, I felt a throbbing in my left shin and looked down, only to see a quickly swelling black and blue spot about six inches long and two inches wide developing. You know how your shin is flat and usually doesn’t stick out further than your knee? My shin was swelling out beyond my knee. Yet, I could walk so I knew it was not broken. I pressed on, knowing I had to cross the first river again.
I made it to the first river and dropped my jaw and my bag. The torrential downpour had made the river go up even higher. Some of the boulders I had used before to get footing with were now covered with water. I walked up and down the side of the river, looking for the most shallow areas, finding nothing that looked below thigh deep or less across. The water was foaming and the waves were curling into themselves against the boulders. I waited for an hour or so, debating my possibilities. Should I wait, hoping for someone to walk along the trail to the river? I knew my chances of anyone else attempting this hike today were slim. I didn’t have my tent, sleeping bag or dry clothes. I was shaking, cold and my leg was swelling. I swore at the river. I swore at the rain and I swore at my stupidity.
Then, the rain stopped, the clouds opened up and I felt the sun on my skin. I dug into my wet bag, pulled out a trailmix EPIC bar had sent me. It had cocoa beans in it and I had a vague recollection of people in Harry Potter always eating chocolate when they were cold or going into shock. Come to think of it, they did that a lot in Wise Man’s Fear as well. I ate a couple cocoa beans, and yelled out, “I CAN DO THIS!”. I knew it was now or never so I plunged on in and began to attempt another crossing. The water was at my waist. It was too strong to go directly across and each time I picked my leg up and brought it to the side, I would begin to lose my balance as the river swept my leg out from under me. The only way I could balance myself was my slowly working my way upstream, directly into the current. Eventually, I would find a spot that was less forceful and I could make my way across the stream a few inches. I continued this for an ungodly long time, forcing my way upstream, then over a few inches in a weak spot, upstream again and then over. There was a spot where the forces of the river was shaking my poles and legs so badly I knew that one moment of hesitation or lessening of strength would be the end. My shoulders and arms ached, my legs felt like they were about to fail from the constant pull of the river. At that moment, I was so grateful for my crossfit training. My legs were so strong and I knew how to work them until failure. Just earlier this week I had raised my PRs in my back squat and deadlift by 30-40 pounds. I screamed out loud one more time against the roar of the river, “I CAN DO THIS!” and with a strength I didn’t know I had, I made it through the last few feet of belly depth water. The water became thigh depth, then knee depth, then ankle depth and then suddenly I was on the other side.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but when I feet reached the bank, I sank to the ground and let out a sob. I got up, walked, stopped and just let myself cry with relief. I thanked the universe for the strength to get through and for the lessons I had just learned. I hustled through the next 7ish miles back to my car. The downpour stopped, the sun was peaking through the clouds and apparently it was warming up. A couple miles from the trailhead, there is a waterfall area where tourists walk out to. They were wearing tee-shirts and shorts. I, however, was chilled to my bones, moving rapidly to keep warm, knowing I had dry clothes in my car.
When I drove into town, I stopped by my favorite health food store in Lincoln, NH called the Purple Tomato. I spoke to Suzie, needing to express my relief to someone. She looked at me, shocked, telling me that there were flash flood warnings out because of the incredible amounts of rain that came down the day before, as well as that morning.
Later, I looked online at the average cubic feet per second of the Ammonoosuc River (a different river in the Whites, but a good gauge for all the rivers up there). Normally, the river runs at about 40-100 cubic feet per second. Yesterday and today, the average was between 1,000 and 2,000 cubic feet per second. The average height is normally 1-2 feet. This morning, it was 4-6 feet.
I am so freaking lucky.
Here is what I learned today:
- Never cross a raging, rapid, river by yourself… especially on a solo hike, in October, in one of the most isolated areas in the Whites, no matter how badass you are.
- Wait it out. Yes, I was probably going into a hypothermic shock and was nervous about not making it through the night on my own, stuck on the wrong side of the river. But, I could have made a makeshift shelter and moved my body for a few hours longer. Someone would have found me eventually because I was on the trail. If the river had swept me away, I would have been lost, probably knocked unconscious and who knows if anyone would have even found my body!
- It’s ok to turn around. I was afraid to turn around today, thinking my failure to summit the mountain would be a sign that I was mentally too weak to hike the A.T. Now, I know, the smart move, trail or not, is to know your limits. Turn around and wait out rough weather or extreme rivers. In the future, I’ll have no problem going into town and trying to hitch a ride over the river via a BRIDGE and then come back to the trail on the other side of the river.
- I have some badass guardians looking out for me and I will never forget it.
Oh, and my leg? It’s pretty beat up. I’ll go to the hospital in the morning. I’m just too tired now. I know there are worse stories and worse situations out there, happening every day in every moment, but this one could have and should have been avoided. Please don’t make my mistake!
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