Life on the Edge

Before I came to the PCT, navigating through snow was one of my biggest concerns with the terrain I’d face while on trail. I had considered taking a snow skills class, since I had never used an ice axe or spikes, but I ended up not having the time. Thus, when we sat in the Idyllwild Brewery the day before we’d begin our hike up to Apache Peak, and a snowstorm began to pummel the plastic tarp protecting the outdoor seating area, a knot of fear formed in my gut. 

San Jacinto, as seen from mile ~132

All of the previous weeks, my tramily had gazed with awe and anticipation at the outline of San Jacinto on the horizon as we marched steadily closer, musing hopefully about the conditions we’d find. Now that we were at its doorstep, it seemed like we’d be squeezing into an incredible narrow weather window – the storm had dropped about 5” of fresh snow, and in the 2 days it would take us to get to the foot of Apache Peak from PVC, perhaps it would get packed down enough that we’d be able to get through without many concerns.

trying to load the San Jacinto trail report YouTube video with 1 bar

On the first night, we managed to load the San Jacinto Trail Report, and listened excitedly as he declared the path to the peak passable without the use of crampons. It seemed as if we’d finally struck gold with the weather window. But we had to factor in our group’s skillset and comfort in snow as well – half of us were comfortable in snow, and half were totally new. We deliberated our options every day as we hiked, asking the plans of every group we passed and keeping a sharp lookout for Intel from hikers who were ahead. With each report of someone who was bailing (and it seemed as if everyone was doing so), our confidence started to flag. Finally, on the night before we were going to ascend, we received a text from a friend who had attempted to redline the whole way. It simply read: “Do not come.” We decided to bail.

bittersweet sunrise before bailing off of Spitler Peak Trail

For weeks, I stewed over this decision, vacillating between relief that we had potentially averted endangering ourselves, and regret that we hadn’t challenged ourselves enough. When I shared my doubts with a loved one, he responded, “there’s no need to live life on the edge.” I know this intellectually, but why then do I still feel the irresistible pull towards the abyss, and the irrepressible drive to throw myself against the edge of my comfort zone until its borders expand? 

The Climb

Two weeks later, we stood at the foot of a different mountain. This time, we were determined to summit. I’m not sure if it’s because the pack of hikers had thinned, and so we weren’t exposed to the whispers of everyone else’s fears, or we all had enough time mulling over our individual regrets, but it was clear that all of our mentalities had shifted: we were no longer taking anyone else’s risk assessment at face value; we were going to show up and decide for ourselves.

cowboy camped at Vincent’s Gap. pc: Sakari McGregor

My alarm rang at 2:30am. My tramily had agreed to start at 3:30am to try to make the most of the predawn hours before the sun would start softening the snow. I packed up my cowboy camp quickly, and by 3:25, we were all standing at the foot of the trailhead up to Baden-Powell, eagerly checking over our ice axes and spikes. 

The trail rose steeply ahead of us, and the dirt and gravel path was quickly subsumed by snow as we climbed. The ice axes were brought out, and then my crampons went on for the very first time since I latched them to my pack at PVC. When the switchbacks disappeared entirely into the snowy slope, with only boot tracks echoing their existence, we turned towards the mountain. It was time to go straight up. 

straight up the mountain in the dark!

For what felt like an hour (it might have been an hour, I didn’t check), we chopped our ice axes into the snow and hauled ourselves up with its purchase. Though we had hoped to see the sunrise from the summit, dawn came and went, and we continued climbing. The sunlight poured champagne into each well in the snow, and I felt the effervescence lifting me up, up, up towards the ridgeline. At 6:30am, we crested the top of Baden-Powell. We’d bagged our first peak!!!

Tramily ladies on top of Baden-Powell! pc: Sakari McGregor

The Fall

I was giddy with the pride of our accomplishment as we started back down the mountain. The boot tracks we followed cut a steep path, and I frequently had to squat to anchor my axe before stepping down. My knees whimpered every time they bent past 90 degrees, and I started wondering if it would be easier to just use my poles, which seemed like they would have more reach. A hiker came by, gliding down the mountain as if he were on skates. “That seems pretty efficient,” I mused.

Making our way down the mountain

I put away my axe and took out both my poles, and started skating. Cautiously at first, and then with more abandon as I discovered that it was, in fact, quite efficient. I was no longer contorting my ankles around the misshapen footprints or wearying my knees with the repeated flexion. I was flying!

And then, I was falling. I have no recollection of what happened – maybe I stepped too far, or maybe my pole wasn’t planted. But one moment I was upright, and the next I was on my stomach, clawing at the snowpack and collecting speed. I guess the thing about trekking poles, even though they provide more reach when going downhill, is that they are absolutely useless for self-arresting. I guess that’s why they say to use your ice axe.

it’s pretty steep! pc: Sakari McGregor

A few seconds and an eternity later, my right foot caught in a small tree well, giving me enough leverage to dig my knee into the snow and slow my momentum. I stared up into Spring and Monochrome’s horrified faces. “Holy shit,” I gasped, and we all broke out into relieved laughter. In total, I’d fallen probably 15 feet.

Somehow, in the aftermath of the fall, I never registered any fear. In fact, I didn’t take out my ice axe until 30 minutes later, after I slipped again. This time, Spring was only a few feet ahead of me, and I bowled her over almost in slow motion. We slid entangled until her ice axe caught the snow. Once we struggled back to our feet, we realized in amazement that I had fallen onto her ice axe and slid with it under me, but somehow had managed not to impale myself.

Spring and me, where we stopped sliding. pc: Amanda Peltomäki

Such Dumb Luck

If my foot hadn’t landed perfectly into that tree well, giving me enough leverage to come to a stop, I’m not sure what would have happened. Luckily, instead of a cliff, there was a line of very solid looking pine trees about 50ft below. If I’d hit them, hopefully I wouldn’t have suffered more than a few broken bones, but that would definitely have ended my hike. There were only two or three of the tiny wells in a 5 foot radius of my fall line. They cupped the bases of foot-tall saplings, poking meekly out from the snow. It was such a stroke of dumb luck that I’d landed in one. 

Similarly, I could have easily landed on Spring’s ice axe in a way that would have taken a chunk out of my butt or thigh – likely another trip-ending injury. Even worse, had Spring not had her axe out, or if her axe hadn’t caught on its own, I might have seriously injured my friend. It was a sobering reminder that I’m not just taking risks with my own safety, but also the safety and experiences of those hiking with me.

So, Where Is The Line?

When I was growing up, my parents would regularly caution me with stories they’d heard of girls whose abused corpses were unearthed in the park next to our house, and insist that I be home before dark, and to never walk alone. I know this came from a well intentioned desire to protect me from the horrors they feared were out in the world, but even as an adult, pulling into my apartment garage after work, I would still see the forms of strange men coalescing from the shadows cast by my car’s headlamps. Every night, I would stride briskly from my car to my apartment, putting on a brave face as if my heart wasn’t thudding in my chest, as if I didn’t want to run. 

This fear, despite its physical manifestations, was clearly unfounded – no one has ever emerged from those shadows to threaten me. Same with the shaky legs and sweaty palms I get when looking down from a third story railing – no matter how hard I lean, it’s unlikely that the railing will break and send me plummeting. 

On the flip side, when I perched on the steep slope down Baden-Powell, and there was a very imminent risk of injury, I had felt no trace of fear. So what do I trust – the clenching in my gut, or what I see in front of me? Or do I trust what others tell me to fear, as I had done at Apache Peak? (Shortly after summitting Baden-Powell, Disco, the sole member of our tramily that had braved Apache Peak, let us know that the climb we’d just done was way harder than Apache Peak. His words drove a spike of regret deep into my gut.) How do I walk the tightrope between safely expanding my horizons and risking my life?

As of late, I’ve been reading The Impossible Climb, which chronicles Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan. In it, author Mark Synnott muses that Alex is able to dangle from his fingertips at the brink of certain death because he “tempered his drive to explore his limits with sober premeditation, diligence, and patience.” He is able to set his fear aside when he knows it poses a risk to his performance, and focus his attention on the execution. Reading this, and reflecting on my fall, I realized that I had lacked temperance when I delighted in the faster way down. Brashness turned off my fear, not practiced and substantiated confidence in my skillset. 

As we head into the Sierra in the coming days, I will get so many more opportunities to hone my skills and to push my limits. I’m glad that my much needed lesson happened somewhere with lower stakes. My ice axe will be out as soon as the trail gets swallowed by the endless field of snow, and I’ll have three firm points of contact at all times. If fear begins to roil within me, I can practice not letting it control me, and gently turning down its heat. And I’ll be reminding myself that the wall guarding the edge of my comfort zone is something to be chipped away at patiently, rather than bowled down with a wrecking ball. It just takes one firmly planted step at a time.

may walking the edge always be as clear-cut as this ridgeline 😌

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