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.

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