We had the perfect plan - we would hike 13 miles up one river drainage, then travel 5ish miles off trail, over a mountain, and connect with the river drainage on the other side of the mountain to hike the 13 miles down an alternate trail to the truck. All in all, a pretty huge weekend, but it seemed doable. There was limited information to be found online about the feasibility of our plan, but it seemed like at least a few people had managed to complete the traverse in the past. Good enough for us - game on!
We left after work on Friday night, as we like to do, and arrived at the trail head to spend a lovely night in the back of the truck. 6 am came quickly, and we grabbed our packs and set off. We made quick work of the first 10 miles or so, cruising past lake after lake, each one glistening a more fabulous shade of blue as we ascended higher into the Alpine. There was still quite a bit of snow up high, and route finding in the alpine slowed our progress. The lakes turned from rich blue to become covered in ice, and late in the day we finally had the mountain that we were planning to cross in sight. What had been gorgeous sunny skies in the morning had morphed to an ominous black, and we started hearing the crack of thunder in the distance. The alpine is not the place you want to be in an electrical storm, and we found the only tree in the area to huddle under.
When I'm in the mountains I try to feel the cues that the place is giving off. You can almost, at times, feel yourself flowing with the energy of the mountain. Surfing, mentally consumed by nature and the probability of chance. When the sun reigns down, the mountains are a place of pure bliss, but when a mountain is shedding rock in the middle of a storm, maybe you should consider changing your plans... that type of thing. Today was no different, and as we stood under that tree in the middle of the electrical storm, I couldn't help but think about how many miles deep we were, how much ground we had to travel in the morning till we found the trail on the other side of the mountain, and just how little we really knew about the terrain we were entering. Sure I'd scoped our line on google earth, but it never looks as steep as it really is, so who knows. Two hours and a hailstorm later, the sun emerged through a hole in the storm and a perfect golden evening commenced just as if nothing had happened. We took the break in the storm to frolic down by the lake and cook a delicious round of mac and cheese, but those thoughts were still swirling as we put up camp and called it a night.
It seemed like making breakfast and taking down camp took forever. We didn't start moving till 8 am. No matter, it was a beautiful day and we had a beautiful mountain ahead of us to play around on. The day began with a relatively mellow scramble through a giant boulder field where we probably gained 800 ft or so. The kind of travel that goes quickly but hurts your feet from jumping from jagged rock to jagged rock. At the top of the boulder field we reached a cliff band comprised of giant staircase steps. I recognized this from my google earth flyover, and we decided to follow what looked like a dry drainage to get up to the upper meadow. There's really only two types of scrambling, fun scrambling and scary scrambling. This definitely fit into the fun category and by lunchtime we were eating sandwiches in the wildflowers of the upper mountain. Maybe my thoughts during the hailstorm had overanalyzed the risk of our route. We still had a long way to travel, but we were looking good from our perch amongst the flowers. My only concern at this point was that it was now noon and we had planned to be at the other trail by 1:00 so we could run out to the truck with the rest of the afternoon. There was still a huge day in front of us and it relied on everything going perfectly. But if I was being honest with myself, we were behind.
The one trip report I could find said that crux of the traverse lied in finding the correct elevation to down-climb a relatively sizable set of cliffs. Only one path worked, and the key was getting there from the top, and being at the correct "top." It was obvious when we arrived at this feature. Along the top of the cliff were short pines that you could hold as anchors to evaluate the route below. Nothing looked good. We searched for an hour trying to see anything looked halfway decent. With each minute that clicked on, all I could think was - what if we go down that cliff, spend two more hours looking for the lakes where the other trail picked up, never find it, then have to backtrack back up the cliff face....what if we can't get up the cliff face. We're LATE. We're so late now. Shit. Even the return trip home is going take absolutely forever. We're 6 hours into the traverse from our alpine camp, then 13 miles back to the car on the trail. We're DEFINITELY missing work tomorrow. Crap, we won't even be able call in to work since we're in the backcountry. Ok, enough is enough, we have to turn to back.
My fiance, her brother, and I make a great team in the backcountry but this one was a bit of a big decision.
"What if the trail is a half hour from where we are and this is all we have to get through before we're home free?"
"Ok, granted, but what if it's not and we're stuck on that side till we find the trail."
"If we go out the way we came, that's 6 hours over terrain, and then the run to the truck. There's no way we can do that."
"Let's just set a goal of seeing how fast we can get back to camp...we can assess then if we have the energy to get back to the truck."
With that, we pulled the ripcord. It never feels good to abort from an objective, but on this day I knew we had made the right decision. The risk was too high, and even our plan B sucked, but even still it was good feeling like we were making the right call.
I felt my mind check into my body's movement as we raced down the mountain. Downhill is pretty much always faster than uphill, and without the slowdowns from route founding we were making good time. We rolled back into camp at 6:00. We were all pretty spent, and spirits were low. Why had we thought we could pull this off on a two day weekend? Our bosses will be pissed that we didn't call in tomorrow if we can't make it home.
It's amazing what a few calories can do to fire up the body to keep moving. We decided to take the half hour to cook the last of our warm meals and then see if we felt like continuing or setting up camp for another night. We could always leave early in the morning and get into work by noon. Our conversation during dinner was basically - is it possible to run the 13 miles out right now? And as we thought about it, and considered our 6:30pm start time we realized that...yeah...it really was possible. We kinda fed off each other. "You know, we could actually do this. We could be at the car by midnight." The more we considered it, you could start feeling the buzz as your body came to life upon realizing that it still had 13 more miles to go.
We put our puffy's in our packs and took off at a slow trot. Running downhill has become a tradition for us - we've always just considered it training for ski season. It's also a good motivator to pack as light as possible! In about a half hour, I felt warmed up again, and the rhythm returned to my stride. The excitement that we were going for it had me checked in, and I could tell with every foot placement that this would be a good trip down the mountain. It was fun. It was a test. It was out of the ordinary. We had kinda screwed up on this one, but we would just be very hungry when we got back to the truck. Kirsten and her brother seemed to be on the same page, and we made solid progress on our escape. Lucky for us, the midsummer light hung in the sky till ten and by that time most of the more technical trail was behind us.
The light shining yellow off the last lake that we passed felt like a warm hug from the mountain. We only had an hour to go by headlamp, and after the day we'd had, as the night emerged I felt like I'd entered a dream. Reality collapsed into the beam of the headlamp. One foot, then the next, the truck must be around the next corner. Man I'm really hungry. I wonder if anything will be open when we get to the first town down the road. Fingers crossed.
11:00. Where are my keys? Oh yeah, that tiny pouch on my backpack that I never use. We made it, we really made it! Must find food. Somehow, as we drove out the dirt roads back to the highway, Kirsten managed to get a signal and there was a Mexican place that was still open at 11:30 on a Sunday night! On highway 2. Unreal. The universe must have put it there just for us. We're going to eat so many Fajitas
20 minutes down the road, the Mexican place glowed like a beacon from the highway. By this point we were giddy from the exhaustion, but elated that we had actually accomplished our impossibly huge day. We must have been a spectacle to the three locals at the bar, since I can recall a few "you guys are pretty strange" sideways glances as we laughed and laughed at the stupidity of our adventure.
By 1 am we made it home. Somehow. The next day at work I was zombie, but that's what work is for, right? Recovering and scheming on the next adventure, the next real moments in life.
Garret Van Swearingen
Director of Content and Athlete Team, LOGE Camps