Someone Told Me Later the Snowpack is 500% (PNT pt. 5)
Madness is something that creeps along the edges. It is a shadow in our periphery. A phantom. Some of us are born of it, and others will seek it out, covet it, like the sun and rain. I must admit that I am quite mad. Whether I was born of it or it came upon me in my later years is a question of semantics. And so it goes.
I woke in the morning, sore from the extra push in the night and the lopsidedness of where I had pitched my tent. In truth, I was grateful to be on a forest service road instead of trail. There is something particularly soothing about a good wide double track. You can walk faster without fear of roots and mud and rocks. The buzzing that filled my senses as I woke threatened that peace.
Mosquitos filled my vestibule, butting themselves up against the mesh of the tent, trying to get at me like the little bloodsuckers they are. This had been a consistent problem and would continue to be. I packed with haste, tossing each item in turn out of the smallest hole I could unzip in the door, before finally extricating myself. Once I was walking I figured I would be free of it.
I got out of my crude campsite on a muddy pull off down a side trail along the cliff face. Before departing I unstrapped my ukulele and brought it to my chest as I walked. Another reason I like road walks is the care free ability to play a string instrument and hum to myself without feeling like I’m going to fall on my face. Well, I was very much mistaken about how much I’d be able to enjoy this activity. In fact, the ukulele became a bat, and I swung it in front of myself at mosquitos, pretending it was doing them damage. It was not wholly ineffective. I believe myself to be a kind person, that values life and the personal lives of all living things, but mosquitos, mosquitos make me want to commit murder.
As I gained elevation the onslaught eventually subsided. I stopped on the side of the trail to put up my ukulele and eat lunch. Ants replaced the mosquitos, but I usually just let them crawl on me if they are black ants, though often they tickle and being tickled is also something that will make me commit murder.
All of a sudden my nuts leapt into my throat as the sound of barking dogs came crashing down the hill right for me. My first thought was not dogs. The owners were riding down behind the dogs on their bikes.
“They’re friendly!” they called out, as a big, black lab tackled me. I had my food laid out everywhere and I groaned internally.
I’m not a dog person. I used to be. Loved dogs, and in a more distant way, I still do, but I developed a severe allergy around the age of ten and all of a sudden being anywhere near a dog can fuck me up like I have been hit by a truck. It does not always happen, and I’m usually only mildly itchy after a brief interaction like this. Anyways, I was irritated and glad when they were gone.
Heading up into Snow
Very shortly after getting up from there, I hit the snow. Little did I realize that the next twenty miles would be buried. Completely buried. Soon to be no water buried. At first it felt novel again, but then I hit the first pass, and things got steep, and there was no longer a discernable route. The whole thing turned into one long traverse with steep embankments on either side of me and a frozen creek below. I came out of the pass, exiting to the right along the curve of the slope, the valley dropping away to the left.
Conditions went on like this for the rest of the day, and it was so tedious that I cannot even begin to describe all of the ups and downs and overs that I went through. I got a little lost, several times, and just had to keep pushing forward. Honestly, my main driving force of the day was at the final summit Far Out had promised two to three bars of Verizon LTE service. I pushed, and way harder than I had to.
There was a pass that I climbed out of, filled with a beautiful frozen pond. I did not realize that it would be the last of the water until I was back out of snow. At the time, I had a liter and a half on me and passed it by thinking I would not want for sources. The ridge run disagreed.
Realizing that I would have to ration water for likely the next day and a half, I dropped down into a valley and found a small melt hole that had water running beneath it. There I filled up to four liters and continued on, shortly after coming to an interesting bowl.
At this point in the day, I was almost to the final summit, but still needed to crest one more climb. I got confused with the route out of the bowl, and realized that I was supposed to climb up to a pass and run the ridge. Huge cornices marked the pass and a snowmobile track seemed to run around the base of the ridge. Very easily could I have walked along the snowmobile track and made it to the other side, no climb but that of the final ascent, but nope, instead I decide to backtrack and attempt to climb straight up the side of the bowl in a place the cornice does not overhang.
Ascending the slope, I estimated it was about seventy degrees, though I did not have my compass to help me determine. Not that I needed it, but I was starting to miss having the thing. Setting a direction and following it would have been much preferable to the constant phone drain of staring at the GPS constantly.
I reached a small crevasse where the snow melted away from the rock at the base of a low class four climb and began to ascend. At the top I was standing on a thin ledge, over a more than considerable drop, clinging to a tree as I tried to decide how to make it up and over the six foot wall of snow drifted in front of me. I clawed like hell to get up and over, ascending to the ridge and dropping down the other side to find the “trail”. You could tell it by the clearing through the trees, but it was still a high angle. I yelled in exasperation.
The summit, when I finally made it, was spectacular. The final ascent brought me to a false summit at the opposite end of a sharply corniced ridge walk. I crossed and took in the sight of it, the wonder. It did not seem reasonable that I should get to be here, and there was the feeling of isolation. I could not imagine another soul for miles and miles around. There had been no tracks in the snow. At this point I knew that I was the first one heading through, would be for awhile. There were few others crazy enough to be out here.
Snow, Snow, Snow
My campsite that night was less than ideal. I was heavily angled, but I was off the snow, which was good, because it got pretty cold that night. It rained, and I was worried about waking up at the summit and having to descend with the snow frozen over. This was not the case. In fact, the snow did not seem to be freezing over anymore.
That entire next day was spent in snow. I think it took me almost the entire day to do thirteen miles, then I got off of it and busted out the last four down to the bottom of the valley like it was nothing. I cherished that site for the luxury that it was. I knew the day after I would only have the next four miles off of the snow.
In that four miles I saw a prairie dog and a moose. Happy things. I enjoyed it while I could, and before I made the ascent back up, I made sure I had plenty of water. The going once I hit snow was even slower than before with how drained I was. I had a thirteen mile day that took me thirteen hours to do.
What do I do for Entertainment?
All the while, I listened to the newest book in the Dungeon Crawler Carl series, which I must say is a fine and silly piece of story and narration. Then I listened to American Gods, which I was not very impressed with. Reminded me of the third book in the His Dark Materials series, which is very messy fantasy. Then I started the Fellowship of the Ring because we all love the classics.
When I was not listening to audiobooks, I was talking to myself. Talking to myself quite a lot actually. I have a lot to say it seems. I actually started keeping an audio diary to make myself feel better about it. I should probably be referencing it for this post, but the most profound thing that came of it was that the Oscar Meyer Weiner theme song is the most likely thing to get stuck in my head while I’m walking. Or, something like that.
I also had a purely philosophical discussion with myself about whether or not I put myself in more danger hiking, particularly in the situation I was currently in, or while driving everyday in my off trail life. Is it just a difference of perspective? Is my life just more obviously at risk when I’m hiking so I think about it more? Maybe I’ll go back and listen to the discussion and tell you all what I think.
The Final Ridge Run
Finally, I believe on day five, I reached the Highline Trail. I reached it in the first two miles of the day, after zigzagging along ridgelines over the last fifty odd miles. It was not how I wanted to start my day. I came around the low pass, exiting to the left and quickly losing the red line as I descended down further into the valley than was proper. I found the “trail” after heading straight up hill at an increasingly steep angle, very nervous about the early morning pack not giving me enough traction.
When I noticed where the trail was supposed to go, my heart sank. It went up an almost vertical slope, that crested steeply right about a sheer rock face. A drop of no more than seven or eight feet, but with a steep descent through the trees beneath it.
Taking slow steady breaths, my leg shaking slightly in that way it does when I get a little too sketched out by what I’m doing, I calmed myself and ascended.
I came to tiny copse of weather beaten conifers and clung to them to claw my way up the wall in front of me. If this sounds familiar, it is because it happened more times than I would have liked.
I got over the lip of the snow drift, still at a high angle, took two steps, and sank to my waist. My shin slammed into the edge of hard rock and I howled in pain as I wriggled my leg out of the small crevasse and buried my arms in the snow. And moments like these, it feels good to scream.
Climbing out of the hole, or fighting to get out, I should say, my shin bruised and bleeding, I continued slowly up the slope and around the bend. What I saw beyond seemed impassable to me at the time. I actually do not remember. I just remember I looked at it, said, yeah, no, looked out at the other side of the bowl, looked at my maps, decided I could cross and cut off two miles, and started heading back. It was much worse heading back. Climbing up anything is always easier than climbing back down. Walking down a slope that steep, with that kind of drop over a cliff, trying your best to dig your feet into a slick service, well, it is a bit nerve wracking.
I had a bit of trouble making it back down from the drift I had previously clawed my way up. Then, when I got back down below the cliff, it still took slow, deliberate steps to get me down on less steep terrain, which took time. Having made it down, I picked up some old snowmobile tracks and started following them to the bottom of the valley.
As I descended I kept looking out at the far walls and canyons of the bowl. I had picked several routes that looked possible on the topos and maybe possible from what I saw, but I had not really decided on anything. From what I could see, if I headed straight across the valley, the far slope was about as steep as the one I was currently on, perhaps a little steeper, and as long as I was going straight up, I figured I could probably crest the ridge after a slog.
The other option was to head further up the valley and away from the main route. The topos looked like I could walk up the nearest side canyon and rejoin the trail up at the ridge there. However, I did not have a good view of it, and from what I could see, there were numerous rock walls that made the topos seem a little dubious.
Eventually, I resolved to go directly across. I told myself it would be the easiest, the most straight forward, and the easiest to correct were things to go awry, which, they always do.
Very soon, I found myself doubting my decision. “Why the hell am I doing this?” I thought. “Why did I not just follow the ridge. I was already up there. I could have done it. It probably would not have even been as bad as what I’m about to do. I’m tired. I’m making bad decisions.”
I looked around me. Having already dropped hundreds of feet into the valley, I looked along the ridgeline to my left and saw where it dipped into a pass. The dip was maybe a mile off and almost perfectly level with me. I changed my mind on the spot about crossing the valley and started heading towards it. As I got closer, the slope grew steeper. I started moving at a more vertical angle, to make the ridge above, as it was dropping lower the further I made it along. In the end, the slope was just as steep as the one I had been trying to avoid before, but I had to cross an even greater distance.
“I really am tired,” I said to myself.
When I finally cleared the ridge, I felt immediate relief. I talked about it later in my audio diary, trying to describe the sensation of dread that comes from being in dangerous situations in the backcountry. It’s a queasy sickness in the pit of your stomach, when you are on a ledge or a steep slope and no safety equipment is holding you there. A fall is certain doom, or not, there is always an element of luck, I say. But, then you crest the ridge; you reach a point of safety and the dread is just gone. It was never there. You just feel relief, and satisfaction, and rightness. The ten years you lost come back.
The ridge was flat. Just an easy walk through the woods. Everything was right with the world.
The Other Bushwhack
I came around the outside of the ridge from the bowl and started ascending a narrow pass. I had begun listening to “Inside” by Bo Burnham, and was starting to think of a parody of “Outside” for my own situation, when I noticed the side canyon sloping down towards lakes and green fields, snow free; towards the highway, or so the maps said. I stood there for a long while, looking back and forth between the pass and the canyon, looking at my map, and then back again.
“I bet it’s an easy bushwhack,” I thought to myself, as well as, “here we go again.”
I easily talked myself into, considering the next twelve miles I knew would still be on snow. I followed the valley down and was off the snow in a matter of moments, the northwest facing slopes truly having melted before everything else. After bushwhacking about a hundred feet, I was on a trail.
“Well, that was easy.”
Just like that, I would be road walking into town a day early.
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