Cold feet. 30 extra pounds. Questions of survival.

Quotes from the trip:

Me: We saw some tracks that looked like a cat. Would that be a bear? A mountain lion?
Andrew: No, that’d be a cat.

Chris: I’m gonna get one of those at some point (spoken every time someone showed him a piece of gear. Any gear.)

Chadd: I hate rabbits (spoken every time the smoke got in his face from the fire. Then everyone started saying it because oddly, it worked.)

Kevin: Who drank all my Jim Beam? (It was you, Kev. It was you.)

John: That White Russian is good …

———–

Day 2: Attempting to climb a mountain that is covered with snow

 

Yeah, I can read ...

Morning came at base camp and I realized a camping first for me: I’d actually slept. And oddly – I credit the snow for providing a smooth surface for me to sleep. I didn’t have to deal with rocks and sticks underneath me all night. Getting out of the sleeping bag and into the cold is always a huge task, and with snow on the ground it’s an even more difficult thing to mentally prepare for. I was smart enough to sleep with all my clothes for the next day in my sleeping bag, so they were nice and warm and I put them on while still inside the bag (as much as I could.)

Since we were at base camp, breakfast had the luxuries of car camping. John brought some food his wife Ashley had prepared and frozen for everyone – sausage and vegetables. We cooked it on his nice big stove (which we then put in the car – way too big to carry up a mountain.) And we had Krispy Kremes – this has become a tradition while camping. The great part about backpacking is you burn them off before you even realize what a horrible thing you’ve done.

Smiling despite the snow
Smiling despite the snow and the totally fashionable balaclava
Boys are ready for adventure
Boys are ready for adventure

So, speaking of backpacking, it was time to either get to it or call the whole thing off. We packed up our packs and went to inspect the trail. Would it be clear enough to hike? One problem: We couldn’t find the trail. This is my third time hiking it, but I have relied on Kevin to get me there more than try to find it myself. And the whole damned campsite was covered with snow, making it look quite different. Chris went to consult the map and then led us prompty to the wrong trail (in his defense, it was somehow labeled with the same color as the correct trail – not sure what that means).

Bottom line: We ended up taking a 1.5 mile hike around the campsite (an hour and a half) before we actually got to the trail. Which would have been just fine with me – exercise is exercise, right? – except, being that it’s winter, and being that we’re in the mountains, daylight is limited. Once that sun drops behind the mountain – it’s basically dark. And we still needed to get to camp, get set up, and gather lots and lots and lots of firewood.

Yep, this is what we walked on. Photo by Chadd Landress
Yep, this is what we walked on. Photo by Chadd Landress

So, we started up the trail way later than we planned. And the trail was covered in snow and ice.  And the hike itself was way slower than it’s ever been. My saving grace: A $20 investment in Yaktrax, which are things you put on your hiking boot to allow more traction in the snow/ice. I seriously would not have made it without them. In fact, I joke about Chris falling a million times over the weekend – I kept telling him if he’d only spent the $20, he’d not have fallen … That, and my handy trekking poles, made the hike up the mountain, while phyically challenging, not scary.

John set the pace going up the mountain, and I’m proud to say I held my own. As I mentioned yesterday, the trails were marked most difficult/most strenuous, and I was able to keep up with a 30-pound pack on my back without too much trouble at all. Chris also kept up without too much effort (despite busting his ass every few minutes, of course), and Jeff was taking a slow-and-steady method he’d read about.

Slow and steady really is key when it comes to winter hiking. You really can’t  sweat at all, and regulating body temperature is actually a really difficult thing to do. I had on four layers up top – thermal base layer, a fleece, a ski jacket, and a rain jacket. As we were moving, of course, the sun and the body heat makes me need to remove a layer. But then as the sun starts to go down, or as we take breaks for water or snacks or whatever, the body starts to cool off quickly. It’s a back and forth.

We actually encountered quite a few people and dogs on our hike up. I briefly regretted not bringing Breanna – this was my first time without her – but I had been worried about her little paws spending too much time in the snow. And truthfully, it was a relief not to have the extra responsibility – this was quite a challenge, and in many ways she helps me, but I always have my eye out on her, too.

Bear tracks next to human tracks. Photo by Chadd Landress
Bear tracks next to human tracks. Photo by Chadd Landress

Speaking of animals, lots of animal tracks in the snow. Gulp. I thought they’d all be hibernating. Shows what little I know. We saw bear tracks, mountain lion tracks (they did not tell me what these tracks were until after the hike!)

I started to get worried about it getting dark. I told John and Chris to go ahead – I was going slower than they were – and to get firewood once they got there. But then I was able to keep up for the most part.

And then, at one point the path split. We took the Higgins Bald Trail up toward our campsite. Apparently this was the path less traveled – as John’s footprints were the only ones I saw (he was just ahead of me.) The trail was covered with downed trees that we had to climb over or under  – not easy with a huge pack and icy footing!

Sunset comes easy on the mountain

John suggested at that point that we all needed to stick together, as the trail was not easy. He asked if we should wait on Jeff. I saw the sun starting to dip down. I didn’t know how far behind Jeff was. I knew he had great survival skills and that the one thing we all needed as a group was firewood. So I suggested we press on. I knew we were somewhat close to camp so if needed, someone or two people could go back and look for him if he didn’t show up. Mistake #1: We had a dead radio. Jeff had the radio with the working batteries. Jeff also had all the spare batteries. Doh.

We had to cross a creek before we got to the camp – which is one of the reasons this campsite is so great – provides water for us to filter and use for cooking, drinking, cleaning. The creek was frozen over – not a surprise. But we could see the running water underneath the ice – rushing past as we crossed. John crossed first and showed me where to put my feet to cross safely. I got across, slowly and surely. And Chris was right behind me – I was surprised at how quickly he crossed – that is, until he took a tumble, right there on the ice. Flat on his back. I freaked out. “Get up get up get up!” I yelled at him, so scared the ice would break and he’d be in the freezing water. The creek isn’t deep or anything, but that could easily lead to hypothermia in these temperatures. He got up, thank GOD, and was not wet.

 And finally, we were there. Except, it didn’t look like what I remembered. In the past, seeing the campsite for the first time elicited a huge feeling of relief – as if we were finally home. And the funny thing is – there ain’t much to it. It’s a clearing with a  fire pit. That’s it. This is roughing it, folks – it’s not like there are bathrooms or anything.

And this time – there was no fire pit. Not one that I could see, anyway. I wondered if we were at the right spot. It looked the same but different. The trees were the same but not. I found where I thought the fire pit was and dropped my pack nearby. And I told John and Chris, in uncertain voice, that we had arrived.

Would we live to tell about this?

This was the point where I wondered if we would survive. It was quickly becoming dusk. All of the trees and sticks were covered with snow, meaning firewood could be wet. And hell, we didn’t even have a fire pit. And it was freezing, freezing cold.

Of course, this concern was really unfounded, I just was a little panicky. With four of us, we could survive on body heat alone. And not all of our food needed to be cooked over a fire. So we would most definitely survive. But I had to actually go through this process in my head before believing it.

Chris got to work clearing snow off of where we thought the pit was. I started looking for firewood. John started setting up the tents (his and Chris’).

And then, Jeff arrived. Only he was injured. He had fallen on the trail and pulled something in his side. He dropped his pack near the creek, knowing the creek was near the campsite. John and Chris went to retrieve the pack and Jeff started a fire. A small fire, given the lack of firewood, but a fire nonetheless.

A small fire, but a fire.
A small fire, but a fire.

We called it an early night – given the small fire and the cold. I ended up sharing Chris’ tent – was originally planning to sleep in the bivy again but I was just so cold I thought the body heat of two people would be better than me alone in the bivy.

Kevin and his crew were supposedly arriving later on in the night – they were to start hiking at 10 p.m. I was extremely concerned about them hiking Higgins Bald trail in the dark – without many footprints, and with the downed trees – and I didn’t yet mention that it was a very narrow portion of train – a fall might send you rolling down a fairly steep embankment. I was hoping we’d be able to communicate to them via radio that it was a bad idea to come up.

I fell asleep – and then woke up to them talking on the radio. Problem was, we could hear them but they couldn’t hear us. So we couldn’t stop them from coming. By the time they actually heard us, they were about halfway up. Jeff warned them that the trail was difficult. But he had more faith than I did – he knew they were experienced hikers, and really, the only thing they didn’t have that we had was daylight. I was so worried, but I decided to trust in their abilities to get up here safely.

And they did. They arrived at 2 a.m. and quickly set up camp in the dark. Jeff promised them a fire but somehow John had his lighter in his tent, so there was not actually a fire (and everyone else was too busy setting up camp to offer their lighters).

There were four of them that arrived – Kevin, Andrew, Tyler and Chad. Another friend, Chadd, was supposed to come and he had actually met up with them at base camp and started to hike with them. About 1/2 mile up, he told the group he needed to turn around due to a bad knee. He was confident in hiking back alone, having done this plenty of times before, and said to tell us he was sorry he missed us.

So, we all drifted off to sleep once camp was set up, waiting for morning.

And morning came – with a bang.

More tomorrow …