In the forests below
I’d had enough. The previous day’s descent of
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
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
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
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
Dragontail loomed overhead to our left, with ridges continuing southeast towards
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
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
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
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
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.