Part Eleven – Fear in the Sierra
On Monday, June 12th, we left Bishop for the second time to return to the trail, leaving behind us the comfort of town life and the warmth of being surrounded by friends. We would not see them again for a long time.
We followed the Piute Pass alternate, which ran parallel to the official route where a bridge had broken under the weight of the snow. This section was however by no means less beautiful than the main trail. In the soft light of the morning sun, we hiked through wide-open plains covered in snow and admired a coyote running away from our position, probably spooked by our presence. The next day, we finally met back with the Pacific Crest Trail after a few minor creek crossings in the dark. These prepared us for the ones we would later face in Yosemite, much bigger and much more dangerous. At lower elevations, we came across longer stretches of dry trail which improved the overall mood of the group. It was a very much welcomed break from the snow. The landscape was greener, and our pace was faster. We took advantage of the easy terrain to make miles until we got back on snow again while ascending Selden Pass. After going over Forester, Glen, Pinchot, and Mather, this pass, culminating at 10,800 ft, was less dramatic. But we were making progress nonetheless. We quickly made our way down to lower elevations at the sight of dark clouds announcing the usual afternoon storm. In the comfort of my tent, lightning struck right by us, and I fell asleep softly to the sound of hail outside.
The next morning, we woke up in the stinging cold. My shoes were frozen solid, making it hard to lace them up. The stars, however, were breathtaking. The Milky Way granted us its presence, spreading across the whole night sky. I could see it so clearly.
The Day I Faced Death and Got Away
“Stay together at all times.”
This was the rule I broke. My first mistake.
Later that morning, I left the group behind to be by myself. I was in need of some time alone.
Music in my ears, eyes focused on the snowy ground ahead of me, I hike fast around the tree wells and over the bumps, not looking behind me. The path of footsteps that I follow gradually goes down, so I let gravity do most of the work by running downhill in the slushy snow. This is quite fun actually. However, the slope suddenly became steeper, so I slowed down to a stop to assess the situation. The footsteps, almost completely washed out by the repetitive thawing and freezing of the snow, are going downhill in a zigzag. They are big enough only to place my heels in them. I move forward anyway. After having traveled on snow every day for the past few weeks, it seems like a walk in the park for me. I feel confident. Too confident. I engage in the descent using my trekking poles only, leaving my ice axe strapped to the back of my pack. Second mistake.
The ridge gets progressively steeper, and I cannot see what’s at the bottom of it. I progress carefully, kicking my heels into the snow. One foot after the other. Kick right, step. Kick left, step. Kick right, step. Halfway through, I can see the top of the trees down the ridge getting even in height, which means that flat ground is near. I engage in another steep traverse. Kick right, step. Kick left, step. Kick right… *Whoosh*
Suddenly, the snow under me collapses and my foot slips up in the air. I lose my balance, fall backward onto my back, and start sliding downhill, losing one trekking pole in the process. At that time of day, the snow is the perfect mix between icy and slushy for it to send you sliding for miles. Instinctively, I turn on my stomach, grab my remaining pole with two hands, and stick it into the ground like an ice axe as hard as I can, hoping it will slow me down. It does not work. I continue sliding down and start gaining a lot of speed. I try again, pushing the pole into the snow with all my power. I don’t slow down.
Suddenly, I realize the gravity of the situation. Pulled by the weight of my backpack, I slide down the ridge faster and faster, not knowing what is below me or where I’m going to land. All my efforts to stop the fall have failed. I have no control anymore.
Time slows down, although everything is happening in a matter of seconds.
I close my eyes.
I let go.
What must happen, will happen.
Suddenly, I feel my body being thrown up in the air. I don’t scream. I don’t open my eyes. I’m terrified, but for some reason, I don’t panic. On the contrary, I feel almost.. peaceful.
This feeling of floating in the air, of letting go of everything.
A feeling of acceptance…
*There’s a world, Outside my doorstep, Flames over, everyone’s heart*
Everything is dark. Music is still playing in my ears. « Blue Light » by Mazzy Star is on. I open my eyes and look around me. I am lying down on my backpack, in a pile of big granitic rocks. I look up and see the track of where I came from. « Fuck.. » I exhale, still in shock. Pieces of snow are spread over the rocks before me. My hands are full of blood. That is when I realize that I’m okay, that I’m alive. I am alive! Suddenly, I get up in a panic to check on my legs. The thought of a trail-ending, or worse, life-altering injury, terrifies me. My right hip is bruised but I can still lift my leg up. Same for my right knee. My hands have a few minor bleeding cuts, but nothing too alarming. Some additional scrapes here and there.. and that’s it. That’s it. I can’t believe it. An indescribable sight of relief overwhelms me. I could have hit my head, broken my neck, etc. I didn’t. I’m still here. I gather my belongings while trying to slow down my breathing, the adrenaline rush still high. While waiting for my trail family to catch up, I look up at the peaks surrounding me, and in an upsurge of gratefulness, I thank them. I thank whatever spirit or god inhabits them, for letting me live another day. The Sierra Nevada is an unforgiving place but for some reason unbeknownst to me, I was forgiven that day.
After a few minutes, the click-clack sound of my friends’ trekking poles broke the silence of the forest, and we finished the descent together. I went back right at it, in the snow, refusing to let fear and doubt get a hold of me. Deep down, I knew this was one of these tests life gives you to see who you truly are, and I didn’t want to fail this one.
Later that day, Beer Slide approached me:
“Well, I am glad you didn’t die, dude.
-I am glad too. But I am going to need that whiskey later.”
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