We Don’t Get Nine Lives

A little obvious, I know. But have you ever been in a situation when time seems to slow down? It happens as soon as you perceive that you’re in significant danger: potentially life or death. Apparently, the effect is caused by the mind struggling to take in as much information as possible. I’ve experienced this three times, and I remember the circumstances clearly. Which got me thinking: if cats are given nine lives, how many did I get?

Life #1: The Bike Accident

It was a sunny Saturday morning in the town of East Kilbride. Since good weather in Scotland is unusual, I decided to take my mountain bike out for a ride. As I headed south out of town, the traffic quickly died down until I was the only person on the road. I had been going fairly slowly up to that point, but I finally reached a straight, downhill section. As I accelerated, I checked the speedometer and put in a little extra effort as I approached 30 mph.

The car coming from the opposite direction was signaling its intent to turn across my path, but I wasn’t concerned. It was a sunny day on a straight road and we were the only two road users. How could they fail to see me? As the car started to make its turn, reality slowed down. I didn’t have enough time to avoid the collision but I did have enough time to deduce that going over the car was preferable to impacting its side. As I stood up on the pedals, I heard my back wheel lock. I’d apparently already hit the brakes, but it wasn’t going to be enough. The next thing I was aware of was opening my eyes and looking up at a clear blue sky.

Life #2: The Raft Flip

My younger sister and brother-in-law were living in New Zealand, and I decided to visit them for Christmas. I spent the first half of my vacation on the north island before meeting up with them on the south island. I did the usual things like hiking, but since opportunities for sky diving and bungee jumping were plentiful and inexpensive, I did those too. Exciting? Absolutely. But not enough to induce bullet time.

Louise was really excited to try white-water rafting, so Anthony and I agreed. The drive to Skippers Canyon was pretty scary in itself. It involved a winding road just wide enough for the bus, above a cliff with no guardrail. Next came the safety briefing. We were told that if the raft were to flip, we should position ourselves with our feet downstream. Our head should be upstream, and we should look for obstacles in our path. Oh, and if possible, we should hold onto our oar, because they’re quite expensive.

Our boat was the last to put in, possibly because we had the youngest, least-experienced guide. For the first half of the afternoon, everything went well. Then, as we approached the most intimidating rapid so far, it all went wrong. A giant rock blocked the left-hand side of the river, creating a large standing wave. All of the water was funneled to the right, where it met the steep rock face of the opposite bank.

The raft started to rotate as we entered the funnel until we were more sideways than straight. As the downstream side of the raft hit the standing wave and the raft began to flip, time slowed to a crawl. In my peripheral vision I saw Anthony being launched over my head as I descended into the trough of the standing wave. Then, everything went dark and quiet as I plunged into the water. I wasn’t sure which direction was up, but I still clutched my oar tightly in both hands.

“Expensive or not, this is no good to me now,” I thought. So I let it go.

Then I waited. And waited. I was wearing a life jacket so I knew I would surface eventually. It seemed to take forever, though. Eventually, I popped to the surface in flat-calm water, surrounded by all the rafts that had successfully made it through the rapid. All things considered, I felt pretty calm. Detached, even.

I couldn’t quite reconcile the calm I felt with the looks of near panic on the faces of everyone in the rafts around me. I swam at a leisurely pace to the nearest outstretched hand, and I was hauled on board. Only then did it occur to me to be concerned for everyone else who’d been thrown into the river.

Life #3: Mount Sill

About ten years ago, a friend from the UK was visiting the bay area. He suggested we hike up Mount Sill since the views from its summit are supposed to be spectacular. I checked the hike description online, and it looked like it would be a challenge. We camped at Black Lake the night before attempting to summit. The following day, we only managed to ascend to the top of the moraine of the Palisade Glacier. Nick was having problems with the altitude, so we retreated to the car.

Last year I returned to Mount Sill with a score to settle. I followed the same route as before (north fork of Big Pine Creek) but this time as a day hike. Without traction devices, climbing the edge of the Palisade Glacier was more difficult than I’d been led to believe. The next obstacle was a steep, L-shaped “snow” (ice) field. It presented me with three equally unappealing options. Rock climb up the left, ice climb up the middle, scree on the right. I chose to go left, when I should have chosen to descend.

The climb itself never had more than about 20 feet of exposure above the ice. However, if I did fall, I would land on the ice field and slide potentially 200 vertical feet onto rocks. I realized this too late: to down climb now would be more dangerous. While clinging to the rock face, I cursed my own stupidity. I eventually made it to the notch below Apex Peak, a safe place to reassess my situation. I could see the next section of the climb, which by all accounts, is the most dangerous part of the “hike.” There were two climbers rappelling down it, and my common sense finally prevailed. I turned around and began my descent.

As I slipped and skidded down the scree, it wasn’t long before I ran into trouble. I got too close to the ice, and slid out onto its surface. Events unfolded in slow motion as I considered how serious this was. I began accelerating. The ice was steep and it was several hundred feet to the rocks below. Slightly faster now. The suncups were large and shallow with sharp edges. Yet more speed. Without trekking poles or ice axe, I had no way to self-arrest. Faster still. I calculated that my best hope was to keep my feet raised and maintain a feet-first slide. With that decision made, I prepared for the worst. The fall would probably be fatal, or life-altering at the very least. I was resigned to my fate.

However, fate had other ideas. As I landed in the next suncup, I saw a rock sticking up through the ice directly in front of me. It protruded only a few inches above the surface, but if I positioned my feet correctly and got the timing just right, I might be able to use it to stop.

So Why Am I Telling You All This?

In my first post, I gave three reasons for wanting to hike the PCT. I also mentioned that there was a fourth. That reason is this: life is sometimes shorter than we’d like. It’s a cliche, I know. But the near-miss on Mount Sill scared the sh*t out of me. For several weeks, every time it replayed in my mind, it made me shudder. But it also brought the PCT into sharper focus: if I’m going to do it, I should do it sooner rather than later.

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Comments 2

  • Lance Goehring : Oct 21st

    Great posts, Richard! Look forward to seeing you on the trail and following along on your trek.

    Reply
  • Alex Green : Oct 23rd

    I just saw a post this morning about someone climbing the same who had slipped on the ice and was not as lucky. Count your blessings again. Article was posted on Inyo County Sherrif dept’s Facebook page. https://m.facebook.com/InyoCountySheriffsOffice/

    Reply

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