Monday, December 27, 2010

The Enchantments, Day 4 - Sturm und Drang

In the forests below Colchuck Lake, I finally reached my breaking point, and told Mike to fuck off.

I’d had enough. The previous day’s descent of Aasgard Pass had been difficult and tiring. Finding and setting up camp in the dark, with no water, was frustrating. And keeping my cool with Mike’s attitude was impossible.

Except – it wasn’t Mike, or Aasgard, or thirst, that I struggled with. My inability to manage my own stress was a direct contributor to the argument in the forest. And that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about the last leg of the Enchantments: we were all on our last leg, Derek literally, and tensions were high. And when the fault lies with your self, it takes a while to figure out exactly what went wrong on the mountain.
It’s easy to get lost even with miles of visibility. Triangulation isn’t simply finding your position between high points; it’s finding your position between mind and body, between each footstep, and between friends. There were three of us, and between us we shared a cold, a sore knee, and blistered feet. Our goals were the same, but our trajectories differed. Bright snow filled the Enchantments’ upper basin, but overhead, dark clouds danced in a late afternoon sky. “The map,” said Alfred Korzybski , “is not the territory.” Indeed – some things just aren’t found on a map.

The upper basin, however, is found on a map, but the sheer isolation and beauty of the landscape is not. The uppermost major lake is, in fact, called Isolation, and the route led over snow and ice-covered lakelets towards Dragontail’s gray-shadowed escarpments and Aasgard Pass. Fields of sun-rippled snow lay between the gentle slope of Little Annapurna and the rugged thrust of the Enchantment Peaks, and to the north and east, Prusik Peak stood sentinel over the lower basin and the deep glacial valleys falling from the heights.

It was here, at the edge of this place at the edge of the world, that my last moment of wonder turned irrevocably towards thoughts of the outside world. No longer connected to the land, I stood separate, considering the warning in the clouds, the steep descent ahead, and the comforts of a lakeshore camp. I followed Derek up the slope, each step a choice among the crests and troughs of sun-melted snow. Mike followed behind us, and as the distance between us grew the wind muffled our shouts and brewed disagreement.
An outcrop of stones. Wind, and running water. A few hundred yards away muffled sounds of conversation – the group of hikers from Inspiration Lake rested and played on a patch of snow-free ground, and practiced glissading down a nearby slope. Not hearing Mike’s yells, and looking for a place to stop, Derek had pushed on ahead, opposite the direction we needed to go. Stress was building. We’d climbed 1,700’ and 4 miles through snow and across hard granite, warmth giving way to cool wind and a brief drizzle. The terrain ahead was completely covered in snow, hiding a series of small lakes rapidly melting out. It was getting late and we were tired, with a challenging descent ahead.

The quarrel didn’t last long and we set out on the snow for the pass, still several hundred feet above and a mile and a half away. The last trees disappeared behind us and the sun cast cloud-shadows across the snow and the bare mountains, the black and gray peaks and dagger-like ridges cutting into the billowing sky. Granite outcrops offered occasional cairns, but mostly we followed a path of footprints through the wild and remote landscape. The sun was bright and warm, and I felt the tug of adventure that begged to set up a camp and spend another day exploring this magnificent country.

Still we climbed higher towards the pass, the long curve of Dragontail a thousand feet above, scales of snow and rock falling into tumbled heaps above turquoise lakes half-melted and filled with ice and dark depths. At last the pass appeared between opposing peaks, a bright orange tent nestled between boulders the only sign of life in a stark, and starkly beautiful, world of mountain and sky.

Here again our maps failed us. Aasgard is no simple notch between mountains, but a wide shelf strewn with boulders and meadows where the snow had melted into wet heather. User paths wound between the slopes and a highly visible trail ran above Tranquil Lake, at the right side of the pass. Unsure of the trail, Derek climbed up to the left while I followed a goat path in the snow past depressions filled with their scat. We came together at the top and gained our first look at our descent, a huge scree and boulder slope at the head of Colchuck Lake, over 2,000’ below.

Dragontail loomed overhead to our left, with ridges continuing southeast towards Lake Stuart in the neighboring drainage. The mountains in front of us became a series of ridges disappearing into the evening distance, with Cascade volcanoes hovering on the horizon untold miles away. Clouds filled the sky, breaking the light into thousands of beams and softening the wooded mountainsides and crags. Colchuck lay like molten glass below, turquoise with melt-water and surrounded by high ridges that broke and fell away in steep curtains of rubble.
But it was the pass that captured our attention, and the weariness in our legs that held our focus. From where we stood, the trail was no where to be found. We could see down the steep, boulder-strewn scree to the lake, but no path stood out, and the features on the map – a stream, a small pond – weren’t in sight. It took some exploring to find the first cairn, and by that time, the sun was on the way down, we’d spotted yet another mountain goat, and encountered a grouse with several chicks in tow. It was after 6:30pm – the lake was .9 miles and 2,200’ downhill, at a total slope at or exceeding the angle of repose, and we expected to reach it soon.

Aasgard had different ideas.

Initially we had it fairly easy. The trail was a boot path between rocks, descending on multitudes of tiny switchbacks and precarious footing. The ground was sandy, rocky, and unfirm, and steep to the point that momentum carried me forward when I needed to stop. Occasionally my feet slid forward in sand. Keeping balance required constant attention. I leaned heavily on my trekking poles, but in many spots we down-climbed through boulders and used our hands as much as our feet. Mike led the way through the cairns, and I was in the back. We spread out so that a fall or a dislodged rock would only affect one of us. Mike knocked loose a rock the size of a bowling ball that fell, gathering speed and bouncing down the pass like a bullet ricocheting off the stone.

The upper third of the descent was hard, but we made good time. Derek suddenly stopped and pointed – he’d seen a marmot, on a boulder out of sight from me. I tried to hurry down but the marmot was gone when I got there. “I never get to see a marmot,” I joked – levity was still possible, and it was true – I’d never seen a marmot in the wild.

Yet, not long after, we encountered another marmot, and this time I was able to watch it for several minutes before it scampered away. We never heard it whistle – instead, we heard the rollicking boom of thunder.

A storm held its distance over Lake Stuart and Eightmile Lake. The clouds didn’t appear menacing, and weren’t piled up in a cumulonimbus, but the storm made plenty of noise, foreboding and violent in my mind. I grew nervous. We weren’t half-way down, and we wore yaktraks for extra traction and carried trekking poles – lightning was a real possibility, but we couldn’t safely go any faster. To share my fears I spoke with Derek about lightning until Mike finally called up “we’re not going to be struck by lightning!” I made a half-snide, half-defensive comment back but kept my thoughts to myself from there on.

The storm never drew closer, but about two thirds of the way down, we lost the trail. From above, we could see obvious sections of trail, but there were no trails connecting them. Rain and rockfall routinely obliterates the trail, and hikers and climbers continually reroute it. Old cairns still mark old ways, and we followed them down as best we could, slipping, sliding, crawling, climbing, and scrambling over the loose rubble until finally, after two hours, we drew close to the lake where the stream cascaded over rocks. We knew we had to cross the stream, but we’d lost the trail completely. More than likely, we descended below the trail, which makes a gentle rise above the stream before climbing more directly up.
Near the lakeshore, it seemed a good idea to bush-wack through the slide alder to regain the trail. A half-hour of that got us no-where, at the cost of many scrapes and whippings. By this time, the light was fading and we’d stopped talking. We found one old campsite, but in my opinion it was too small for three tents, so we moved on.

Eventually, we located the trail, but our elation was short-lived. Earlier, another backpacker told us that the bottom of the trail was “bouldery.” Having just descended Aasgard, we didn’t think he meant a quarter to half-mile field of house-sized boulders weighing hundreds of tons or more, which required hands-and-feet climbing and scrambling to negotiate, on rubbery legs weak from fatigue. It would’ve been fun under other circumstances, but I was beyond fun. All I could think of was pitching my tent, eating food, and getting a good night’s sleep. I was ready to be done, but we weren’t done yet.

Mike still had a cold, Derek’s feet and knees were blistered and strained, and I was frustrated and grumpy. It was past sunset, and we hadn’t found a campsite yet. We hiked the length of the lake to find that every site was full, and that’s when Mike and I began to argue. We walked in deteriorating light, and though I could see decently with the light from the sky, I was tired and I began tripping on roots. I asked Mike to stop so we could get out head-lamps. He wanted to preserve his night-vision. After a while, I was fed up and stopped to get my headlamp, anyway. We walked back the length of the lake and finally, close to ten o’clock, we found a flat spot just off the trail. I got there last and threw down my pack in anger.

My take was that Mike was being selfish – he wasn’t thinking about the condition I was in. We were hiking around a dark lake, trying to find a campsite, and he wanted to keep his night-vision? His perspective, though, was that he could see fine – and he was as tired as I was, was as eager to find a campsite, and he had a cold. When people are stressed, communication breaks down, and the smallest assumption, accurate or not, becomes inviolate in your mind.

No one ate dinner – we just went to bed and didn’t stir for 9 or 10 hours.

In the morning we found we weren’t even in an established site. Hikers on their way to the pass told us we’d been quiet, and were uniformly surprised that we’d descended the pass the night before. In fact, every single person or party we met who hiked Aasgard went up it, not down.

In the morning, Mike led out, and we wandered back and forth along the shores of Colchuck Lake, unable to find the trail down. I was sore and thirsty and twice I bashed my head into the same branch, where it hung awkwardly at a rocky step. Mike had mistaken a smaller lake for Colchuck; brought us to the trail and turned us around, thinking it petered out; and finally, after relocating the trail and hiking a mile down while out of water, he’d left Derek and I at a waterfall while he continued to descend in search of an easier source of water. The further we hiked, the more annoyed I became, and the more frustrated I grew with his attitude, which at the time I found arrogant, selfish, and controlling. And I couldn't let it go, or deal with it effectively.

When I told Mike to fuck off, I felt I was completely in the right to do so.

Of course, I was wrong.

We were both tired, sore, frustrated, eager to get to the trailhead. Neither of us communicated this with each other; I’d actually stopped talking. Both of us were in the wrong, and we made it worse by making assumptions.

If Mike was acting like an ass, then I certainly was, too. And when the storm broke between us, in the lush forest below Colchuck Lake, it was the direct result of displacing my frustrations on Mike, my subsequent misinterpretation of his actions, and my brooding silence while I tried, unsuccessfully, to let it all go.

I had a really hard descent a few years ago from Crater Lake in the Wallowas: after 11 miles of hiking, crawling over downed trees, and a wet ford of a creek, Mike and I dropped 3000’ in 3 miles over loose rock half obscured by shrubs that scratched our calves and caught our poles, in 90 degree heat with no wind, and with no water. Halfway down Aasgard, Derek asked us how it compared to the Wallowas. Mike replied, “we’re not done yet” – meaning, it could get worse. And it did.

The landscape can be beautiful but harsh, generous and yet unforgiving. Aasgard was a physical challenge, but a harder mental one. And I lost that battle.

There are a lot of details I had to leave out of this story, and I’m sure Mike and Derek both have their own interpretations. I’m not trying to have the final word, and I’m not assigning or abnegating blame. The entire trip through the Enchantments tested our individual and collective strengths, and I wonder now where mine broke down. I doubt there is a single place – but there is much to be learned in the seeking.

Getting to the truck was like a blessing; getting to a motel was bliss. Aasgard Pass has a long reach. And there’s a huge distance between the soaring heights at the top of that pass and the dark rocky base. But Aasgard only enhanced the experience, and the descent, while difficult, won’t be what I remember years from now – I’ll remember the feeling of walking through the Enchantments, of feeling so alive that I can’t express it, of seeing the great and vivid beauty of the mountains and lakes and wildlife, of the camaraderie and good times I had with my friends. I’ll remember that, and not the argument in the woods, when Mike and I apply for next year’s permit this February – and maybe then, I’ll remember Aasgard just a little bit and plan to go up that son of a bitch, instead of down.

Looking Back: 2010 Hiking Review

Climbing the trail at McCall Point on a cloudy, wet, viewless February morning earlier this year, I couldn’t imagine how my year in hiking would turn out. I hadn’t been hiking in almost two months; rough weather and the holidays had seen to that. During that time, I sat inside and made a list of places I wanted to go. It was an ambitious list, and although I didn’t get to check many off my list, in 2010 I ended up hiking more miles, in more places, and with more people than ever before.

Looking back, I can’t even begin to pick highlights: the snow, goats, and granite beauty of The Enchantments and the rainy huckleberry meadows of Indian Heaven; the incredible color of Crater Lake and the dome of ocean fog while camping at Bayocean Spit; the high glacial austerity of Cooper Spur and the wildflower meadows of McNeil Point; the steep forest trails of the gorge and the open hillsides of the lower Deschutes. Mountains, coasts, deserts, flowers, forests, wildlife, and amazing friends – I was lucky to enjoy it all.

I’m working (slowly!) on a number of write-ups for the “Hikes Past” and “One Shot Wilderness” series. In the meantime, it’s been fun to look back at my list of hikes and remember all the great experiences I had.

Days spent on the trail: 45
Total mileage: 289 (6.42 average)
Elevation gain: 62,000 ft (1377ft average)
Most mileage in a day: 12
Largest gain in a day: 3000ft

Places Visited:
Columbia River Gorge: 17
Mt. Hood & Vicinity: 10
Oregon Coast & Beach: 6
Other Alpine & Sub-Alpine: 5
Other: 2
Hikes repeated within the year: 8, including McCall Point 3 times, Catherine Creek area 4 times

Hike Details:
Overnights: 11
New hikes (to me): 21
Solo hikes: 27
Number of different people I hiked with: 11
Toughest hike: Snow Lake to Colchuck Lake (Enchantments traverse)
Easiest hike: Toketee Falls (half mile, 200ft gain)
Animals seen: deer (over 25), mountain goats, marmots, black bear, pika, mink
Days with at least some rain: 10
Days with snow: 6
Thunderstorms: 2
Blisters: 1

Hiking isn’t about numbers, about how many miles you hike, or how much elevation you gain. While I can quantify my year in numbers, in the end, it’s the wealth of experiences I’ve had on the trail that I’ll remember most. Hiking, for me, fills not just a physical need but spiritual and psychological needs as well, and I’m blessed to live in a region saturated with premier hiking opportunities, with hundreds of places to get outside and get away. It’s raining again and the forecast calls for freezing nights and snow at 600ft. I hoped to get one more hike in this weekend, but I guess I’ll start putting together a destinations wish-list for next year…

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hand-Drawn Maps and Hard Choices: Hardy Ridge, May 2010

Going back to May 18th, 9:00 am, sitting in my truck at the equestrian trailhead off Kueffler Road in southwest Washington. I smoked a cigarette and watched two birds – an oriole and a yellow warbler – peck for insects on a rain-soaked stump. My windshield was a constellation of water droplets. Ferns softened the forest in front of me, pew-like picnic tables surrounded by pillars of young, straight Douglas firs. The gated gravel road serving as the trail led uphill into gloomy, weather-darkened woods. I’d come here to hike Hardy Ridge for the first time, and something held me back.

I conducted a long argument with myself. It was raining. I’ve hiked in the rain before; I even enjoy it, sometimes. The rain would obscure the views from the ridge – but also from any other hike I might do instead. I was tired from lack of sleep and the previous night’s beers, but hangovers had never stopped me at a trailhead before. It was dark and ominous and there was only one other vehicle at the trailhead. Afraid of the gloom, afraid of being alone? No. I wanted solitude, and with the rain, almost any other hike would be equally as gloomy. Afraid of the unknown? No. At one point, every trail I’ve ever hiked was unknown to me. Didn’t feel like hiking abandoned roads for several miles? It’s not ideal, but I’ve done it before.

So what, then? Intuition, a gut feeling, not fear but another force with equal weight. I hike every week, I enjoy challenges, I’m prepared for the weather and to hike a new trail. Should I listen to myself? Should I bail? Why should I bail if I can’t identify the source of my hesitation? Everything I’ve ever read about trusting your instincts in the wild came back to me: stop, don’t panic, listen to yourself, assess conditions, proceed cautiously, know when to turn back, no regrets. But that was always for alpine climbing or other dangerous pursuits – not for hiking thousands of feet up miles of unfamiliar trail in the rain, with a hand-drawn map and having left no itinerary.

I argued with myself. Do it, a voice whispered, don’t give in. What will people think? You’ve gained a reputation for doing this, don’t let yourself down, don’t let your friends down. What will they think? What do you care what they think? Multnomah Falls is nice, another voice answered. You can come back later and hike Hardy Ridge in the sunshine. That’s reason enough, isn’t it? No, it’s ridiculous to sit here thinking about this. You’ve never turned around before. Go for it! You’ve been beyond Multnomah Falls several times this year already. Yes, but I’ve never, ever experienced such an instinctual warning, not a thought or an emotion but a deep, complex knowing. Listen to that, learn from it, gain from it.

I looked back at the stump and the oriole and the warbler were gone. I started the engine and before I knew it I was driving back over the Bridge of the Gods, west towards Multnomah Falls.

I hiked up Multnomah creek on the Larch Mountain Trail, and crossed over into the Wahkeena drainage. As I descended the steep canyon above Wahkeena Falls, rain began to fall heavily. I put on my shell and looked east towards Hardy Ridge. Clouds swirled across the crest, and a dark mass of rain broke above it before it faded from sight in the downpour.

There wouldn’t have been a view.

Since that day, I’ve told this story to a lot of people. And in telling this story, I’ve found that some people think I should have faced up to the challenge and gone on the Hardy Ridge hike. Most people, however, feel that I did the right thing by following my intuition and leaving. I sensed something wasn’t right and I changed my plans. That, at least, sounds responsible.

Months have passed since that morning I sat in my truck on Kueffler Road. My day turned out well – I enjoyed my hike up Multnomah and down Wahkeena – and I returned with a friend to hike Hardy Ridge less than a month later, in much better weather. But I still debate my decision to alter my plans. What could I have learned from going against my instinct? What could I have experienced, and would it be better in some way than the growing familiarity of the trails and landscape around Multnomah and Wahkeena?

I’ll never know. There’s enough mystery in the woods, and in life. That mystery will never run out. I learned something just from having the debate, and I came up against something else to work through – a question about spontaneity, about trust in my experience and senses, about accepting the situation as it is, and not as I think it should be.

In the end, hiking alone is about control, about learning when to surrender that control, and the responsibilities attendant to each. I choose the hike, I get up and drive to the trailhead, and I hike. I could as easily go to a gym and climb a stair-master. The difference is in what I open myself to while hiking. And in that 20 minute conversation with myself at the Hardy Ridge trailhead, I learned that control and surrender aren’t mutually exclusive properties.


I guess I’m thinking about this because the weather here has been lousy the last few weeks, and I haven’t been hiking. Instead, I’ve been reading about the land and how to approach it. Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams has been provocative in illuminating the qualities the land has to stir the heart and move the spirit, and reveal something of our humanity: “To have no elevated conversation with the land, no sense of reciprocity with it, to rein it in or to disparage conditions not to our liking, shows a certain lack of courage, too strong a preference for human devising.”

I would like to think I am open to wisdom from any landscape, be it deeply forested and shrouded with rain, or cloaked in confusion and the spacious territory of the interior.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Photos Selected for the 2011 PortlandHikers Calendar

The weather has been lousy for hiking recently, and I’ve been cooped up indoors, reading my notes and journals and looking through photos from hikes this past year. It’s been hard to get motivated to get up in the dark to hike in cold rain, and as a result, I haven’t been hiking for almost a month. One positive thing about being cooped up was that I submitted photos for inclusion in the 2011 calendar, and two were selected.

February, main photo.

This photo was taken in July at Lake Perfection in the Enchantments, on the third day of a backpacking trip with two friends. As we rounded the lake, the view opened up, and nearly simultaneously, one of my friends and I stopped just several feet apart to take photographs. His photos are virtually identical to mine – taken at the same time and place, from the same angle, and differing only in whatever settings our cameras were on.

Dark storm-clouds swirl over the soft contours of Little Annapurna, and the bright green spires of pine mirror the craggy ridge. The snow and ice feel more wintery than mid-summer, and the somber blue-grays of the sky and granite contrast with the pocket of blue sky and sun in the center of the photograph. The reflection and the framing weren’t planned – we just saw the view, and stopped, and drew it in.

The Enchantments were the highlight of my outdoor year: incredible scenery and adventure at every turn. I remember taking this photograph – it was a breathtaking view in person – and it happened on a section of trail growing progressively more challenging, with bare granite and meadows turning to snow and ice, and with rain starting to fall. We’d already hiked a long way, and had a long way to go. And that was fine with all three of us. Scenery like this deserves to be savored, and out of several hundred photos I took on that trip, this is easily one of my favorite five.

November, inset.

This is the original photo that was cropped for the calendar. To me, the expression on the goat’s face is what makes this shot. This is another of my favorite photos from the Enchantments, and it comes with a story.

After climbing above Lake Perfection, we began to see mountain goats. They approached without fear and I took a lot of photos. This particular goat walked up to us while we took a break climbing steep snow above Inspiration Lake. We used a large slab of granite as a table, and I snapped this pic as the goat circled the outcrop. One of the things that struck me about mountain goats is how well they’re adapted to their environment, and I think this shot captures a bit of that. There’s not a lot of color here, and the goat is staring right at the camera. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but he exudes a wry patience and a natural intelligence. Mountain goats simultaneously seem wise and bemused, and this photo always makes me smile.