Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?

2/11/2008

- FACING DOWN THE SNOW DRAGON -
Cold and Solitude in the North Cascades

"Stehekin is what America was" goes the local saying. Stehekin, Washington is a tiny but proud outpost of log cabins, vacation homes, a ranger station, and a well-regarded bakery speckled over the northeastern edge of Lake Chelan. Born of an independent pioneer spirit, the settlers who made Stehekin their home were characterized by their gritty determination to eke out a living beneath massive glaciated crags and among fickle rivers that continually redefine their banks regardless of the placement of roads and bridges. The summer is short, the winter is long, and the waters of Lake Chelan are cold and deep. Drain the lake and the bed would become the lowest dry point on the continent, lower than Death Valley. Stehekin (which means "the way through" in the native tongue) would make a believable Alaskan village and true to that spirit, it's only accessible by boat or foot. Seemed to me it was a good place to recover from a debilitating respiratory infection after hiking more than 1,900 miles. Several days of raiding the bakery, keeping warm and dry, and socializing with other hikers in town had me ready to return to the trail and push south towards Skykomish over 100 miles of the toughest terrain outside of California's High Sierra. I hit the trail the afternoon of September 28. Most hikers needed four to five days to negotiate this section. It would take me eight. Good thing I carry extra food.

Things started off well. I crossed paths with several through-hikers whom I'd met earlier in the trip and we had the opportunity to catch up on adventures and trail gossip, sharing laughs and photos and advice. I was energized and optimistic and it was great to be moving again after a solid week of illness. The second day had me going up a valley on a 3,000 foot climb, then right back down the other side of a pass. I was winded, but figured it was because of the time off that I'd had to take and the fact that I was carrying more food than normal. No worries. Glacier Peak loomed in the distance burdened with a mantle of ice hundreds of feet thick, crumbling and cracking in places and forming a pattern of crevasses that could take months to fully explore, but of course by then they'd all have shifted and altered their form, requiring exploration anew. Around the mountain's west side the PCT route traced up and down steep radiating valleys and through ancient forested slopes crawling with mushrooms and vibrant berry-meadows crawling with bears gorging themselves before the winter onslaught which was due to arrive any day. Still air, sunshine, and tough climbs were the order of the day.

The going was slow. I was tired, and now it felt a bit more complicated than simple fatigue. A week off, a visit to the doctor, and some prescription medicine had not done what I'd hoped they would do. I was still sick and getting farther into the wild each hour. My breaks became more frequent, I was generally either too hot or too cold, and still I pressed on - knowing that whatever lay out there I could handle as long as I could maintain a sense of what the situation was and react appropriately. By the third day the fatigue was nearly complete. Ascending the third 3,000 foot climb in three days it was all I could do to put my pack on and go for half an hour before collapsing with exhaustion. My appetite was almost completely gone, and for a through-hiker that's scary. On a good day I could wolf down ten slices of pizza without flinching but there I was prone at a switchback gagging on the last bite of a pathetically tiny Cliff Bar. No energy in my muscles, only in my will. Clouds had obscured what had been a perfect clear blue sky sending the temperature plummeting. I needed to find a place to camp and rest, even though there wre miles upon miles remaining before I could get indoors again. Climbing up to a small grassy bench, I crumpled onto the blueberry mats. Grouse cooed and chittered around me. When I woke I made it another half mile to a blue-green alpine lake in a glacial bowl. Mica Lake. Among the cold boulders near the lake's outlet I collapsed again and tried to drink a vitamin C and electrolyte mix. My body was not appreciative. In a stupor of muscle aches and dehydration headaches I set up my tent and treated a gallon of water so I could settle into my sleeping bag and not emerge until I felt able to shoulder the pack again. That wouldn't be until almost 36 hours had passed.

Two nights of sleep later I stuffed the wet tent into the pack and threw it on. I felt a little better but the real motivating factor was the consideration of how many miles I had to cover overlayed with how much food I was carrying. I simply had to keep going. The rains I'd heard about in Stehekin were here. Not a bit of direct sunlight the whole day, only white cloud, mist, and a constant rain. The miles of brilliantly colorful blueberries and mountain ash that lined the trail were laden with moisture and they basted my pants and gaiters with a saturation of icy water that soaked into my shoes and was absorbed by my fleece gloves. Soon my supposedly waterproof outer shell was a heavy, dripping, frigid mess. Core layers were still warm if slightly damp with body vapor, and as long as I kept moving and the blood kept pumping then my feet and hands stayed within the realm of OK, but even after a three minute breather they were absolutely chilled.

Night fell and I found myself trying to figure out where to put my drenched and freezing raingear. The winds blew, more rain fell. Solitude.

Morning broke and I broke camp, feeling better but not entirely enthusiastic about putting on my drenched socks and shoes to head out into more of the storm. I hit the trail wearing a wool thermal top, a fleece jacket, a fleece vest, and my rain jacket. Even then it would be a half hour before I could feel my fingers, and by then my core was sweating. Losing the battle to stay both warm and dry. A bear on the trail in blowing mist, I yell, it runs off. Why does a creature four times my mass with claws and the strength of ten men fear me? I try not to question it and just feel thankful. Moving on. I shiver a bit whenever I take a short break. Not good, and I know it.

The hours tick by, the sun breaks the cloud for ten minutes and everything is as if newly minted, brilliant, glistening, vibrant. Rainbow-making conditions but no rainbow appears, and as soon as the sun gets my clothes steaming it's gone again and the winds are back. Darkness will fall soon but I've got a bit more than twenty miles left until the road that will take me to hot-tub land and I want to get there tomorrow. Cresting the last high point I find a small tarn and a patch of flat to pitch the wet tent and place my wet self inside of my wet sleeping bag. My breath looks like dragster exhaust - thick and white. The patter of rain falling on the nylon reverberates through the cold grounding me as I get into the fetal position deep inside the damp bag and try to suppress chills and regain feeling in my fingers, lost since I pushed metal stakes into freezing marsh barehanded.. Twice I have to heat water in the vestibule over a finicky soda can stove and then subject myself to a thigh-burning Nalgene just to keep from shivering the whole night in my wet kit. Thankfully, around midnight the sound of the rain grew softer and then sputtered out, and silence foretold that I would awake to a sunshiny morning.

I awaken, but not to sunshine. The silence signalling the end of the rain only signified that it was then snowing, All night long. The tent fabric, dripping with leaks or condensation, is now three inches above my face. The air is cold and heavy and close in. I've gotta get outta here. Stepping outside after donning all of my cold wet gear, I survey the damage. I can barely see my tent under the drift of white stuff weighing it down into unfamiliar smoowhed shape. By the time I've packed everything away and gotten my gloves on and my pack strapped I can't feel any fingers or toes. Exhilarating. Frightening. Motivating. I hit the trail with a vengeance, pumping the trekking poles into the cold.

No feeling. Then a stinging, then a fiery stabbing coldness in my joints as the tissues rewarm. The gloves are soaked through and every moment in them feels as if my hands are plunged into the frigid remains of an icechest once full of ice but left to melt fot a while. I wring the gloves out periodi but that only gains me a few minutes of less intense pain before the numbness returns. Miles sweep underfoot as an imperative force pushes me on beyond what I would normally call fast. Eventually I remove the gloves altogether and breathe my exhalations directly onto the wet hands to keep them from freezing. The air is fluid with the cottony snowflakes of a whiteout. Stumbling along, I'm now holding my metal trekking poles crossways in the crook of my elbows and my hands are held in a steady wringing stream of breath. This is wild, I realize. The margin for error is getting slimmer every moment. If I were to say, fall, and were unable to get a fire going or set my tent up then death by exposure was entirely a possibility. Not even twenty miles left to go, I could be out by mid afternoon. Keep moving.

About this time in the day, the Eagles make an appearance and possibly save my life. I figure I need something to occupy my mind to keep from concentrating on the pain of being cold so I decided to sing. My mental song list stopped on Hotel California, one of my favorite tunes and one I'd sung out loud dozens of times. I loved the song and every lyric. Walking through the snowstorm I began to sing. Voices were calling down corridors and pink champagne was suggested, but then a curious thing came to pass. I couldn't think of the next line of one of my favorite songs. Nothing but a blank page in the middle of the most familiar of melodies. A fog lifted in my mind as I realized that my mental function had fallen dangerously low and that I needed to take some action to right that. A small patch of dry ground appeared amidst some trees near a stony moss-covered cliff and I stopped, removed my pack, and found that I couldn't work the buckles of the pack to open it. My right hand had clawed up so badly that I couldnt pick up and hold my water bottle. Hmm, this is interesting. By some misfiring of dexterity I manage to get the necessary components of a lit stove working in harmony and tear open a packet of mashed potato mix with my teeth while waiting for my fingers to move correctly. Without being so familiar with that song as to recognize the significance of forgetting a lyric, I might never have stopped to warm up in time and followed a less cheerful course that day.

Soon after getting back on the trail chilled but functioning again I encountered some relatively recent footprints in the snow. Someone had been there that very morning and turned around! Maybe someone with a car waiting at the trailhead? With renewed resolve I crunched through the cold and wet material covering everything and eventually descended from the white snowline to a dripping moist underforest exhausted and sweating underneath the layers. I was uncomfortable but safer now that the white teeth of winter had been evaded for the moment. A litltle luck later and I was riding into town with two fun people, two fun dogs, and a delicious local brew in hand. Three days of cold rain, a trail zero spent sick as a dog in bed, and a night and morning of hard snowing and hypothermic revelations, and now I'm on my way to pancakes, sausages, and a hot tub In Skykomish. Disaster averted? Maybe. Lessons learned? Certainly. Appreciation gained for the thin line between adventure and emergency, balance and disorder. Would I hit the trail again? Of course I would, but only after a visit to the outfitter to bulk up on the winter necessities. The dragon was always going to be there, but the wise traveler knows how to step around without disturbing. Perhaps on this section I gained a little more understanding on how to tiptoe around those dragons.

But that was all weeks ago and now just one more brick in the foundation of life experiences that I'm building. On to the next one.






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