Full disclosure: I am dramatic and borderline poetic, so the actual events described in this post may not be as grandiose as they actually were.
It was an ideal trip, in my mind. Reality would prove to be crueler and scarier, showing me what I was made of, and ultimately, what I was capable of enduring for the purposes of survival.
Headed Into The Wilderness
Last week, I went on a three-day backpacking trip in remote sections of the Goat Rocks Wilderness area and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, just north of Mt. Adams. I have done this trip before, about seven years ago, so it wasn’t anything beyond my physical ability. In fact, I felt pretty good starting out, due to the fact that I am in better shape today than I was then. Returning on this trip was my good friend Dennis, who I have had the privilege of calling friend for over 20 years, since the fifth grade. The amount of research that he put into this trip was amazing and studious, and while we were a little concerned about the levels of snow in the higher elevations, we put our backpacks on and set out on the Walupt Lake #101 trail, heading towards what would be an amazing adventure.
The first day was truly uneventful. Setting out on the Walupt Lake #101 trail towards Short Trail Camp (Beaver Ponds), it took us two hours to hike the four-plus miles to our first campsite. The weather was cool, the trail mostly clear, with the exception of some runoff due to melting snow, and our trip was starting out exactly as planned. Except for the mosquitos, they were a force to be reckoned with, especially on the third day.
We set up our camp, gathered wood for a fire, pump-filtered water to drink and then relaxed. It was a great first day, ending with a nice fire and freeze-dried dinner.
The next day, we left camp and set out for the Pacific Crest Trail #2000, which would take us to our second campsite, Sheep Lake, climbing roughly 2,000 feet (Sheep Lake’s elevation is approximately 5,800 feet). Immediately, we noticed that the trails were in much worse condition than the previous day. There were several flooded sections of the trail as well as a major wash out along the PCT. Once we got around a few problem spots, we started to climb, thankfully encountering no major blockages on the narrower sections of the trail. But the ease and joy would soon cease as the clear trails became littered with fallen trees and fields of snow. Because we had done the hike before, in warmer weather, we knew the general direction that we needed to go.
We crossed what seemed to be an endless ocean of snow, eventually reaching a point where we had to cross Walupt Creek, which was more of a river because of the amount of water from melting snow. We found a place where the snow was thick enough to act as a bridge across the creek and hurried across, hoping that it wouldn’t break away delivering us to the chilled waters below. Success, although we still didn’t have a clear trail to follow. We continued climbing and working our way towards Sheep Lake, thankfully picking up the trail periodically, getting closer and closer to our second campsite.
We finally made it to Sheep Lake, which was surrounded by massive fields of snow. The trails were covered with amazing amounts of snow, and our original plan of continuing on to Cispus Pass was thwarted because it was impossible to continue following the Pacific Crest Trail. We set up camp, took a short siesta, and set out to find the trailhead for Nannie Ridge #98, the trail that would return us to Walupt Lake the next day. We climbed a larger hillside covered in snow and spent a good hour scouring the region looking for the trail. We finally found it and followed it for a good distance in order to ensure that it was safe to follow tomorrow. Feeling good, we returned to our camp, and enjoyed a nice fire, mountain-fresh pump-filtered water, and a brisk breeze.
Waking up is never a problem in the wilderness. The sun rises early, the sounds of nature lull us from a shallow sleep, and if there was ever a sign of the type of day we were about to have, the mosquitos were up, hungry and swarming us head to toe. We pump-filtered more water, packed our packs, and set out for the Nannie Ridge #98 trail.
The snow was crunchy and a little slick because of the overnight temperatures, so it made for slow progress. We reached the trail, following it joyfully, enjoying the amazing views of the Goat Rocks and the luminous Mt. Adams. It seemed that the worst was behind us and that it was going to be a beautiful day, until the trail was covered with giant snow fields. The Nannie Ridge #98 trail is a relatively dangerous trail. It is narrow and beneath a ridge of rocks, sloping into a practically vertical hillside. It was pretty scary to have snow covering this trail, but we set forward in confidence.
We set out across the snow, successfully crossing a few snow-covered sections. Then, when my confidence was high, I slipped and lost my footing, starting to slide down the snow-covered hillside. Not good, not good, I panicked, trying to use my walking stick to stop, but I kept going, thankfully catching a tree with my leg. Overall, it was probably only 7-8 feet of distance, but it could have been a lot farther if I hadn’t been stopped by this tree. Unable to get back up the hill on the snow, I climbed over the tree and made my way back up to the trail. I finally made it back to the trail, broken skin and spirit, but thankfully not a broken leg. I was overcome with emotion, ready to cry, but I pushed it aside, I didn’t want my emotions to get the best of me. Dennis made it safely across, he snapped a photo of the snow field, including my wounds, and than we continued on across more snow fields and around fallen trees.
Every moment where we thought we lost the trail, we were always able to pick it back up. Until the inevitable happened and we were completely lost. Noticing a ridge above us, we scrambled up, hoping that it was the Nannie Ridge Lookout where we would follow a switchback trail back to Walupt Lake, but the more we climbed, the higher we went, we realized that this was Nannie Peak and not the lookout. The view was amazing! Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens, Walupt Lake and the entire forest spread out before us. But we were lost. We looked at the map and the compass finding our bearings, but realizing that we had a choice to make: continue searching for the trail or start to bushwhack down the hillside towards Walupt Lake.
We opted to bushwhack to the lake, but first, we needed to get safely down from the ridge we just scrambled up. We couldn’t go the way we came up because of the steepness and the amount of rocks. Admittedly, I was stupid enough (desperation?) to think that I could do it. Fortunately, Dennis is a lot more wilderness-savvy than I am, and he found another way down. We continued pushing our way through branches, slipping in dusty, rock-covered hillsides, getting closer and closer to Walupt Lake.
As we descended through multiple terrains—forest, dirt and rock ridges, grassy and snow-covered hillsides—Dennis’ advice was ringing in my ears: “I’m not sure how we are going to get there, but as long as we keep moving towards the lake, we will find a trail.” In addition to the terrain, the mosquitos were awful. We were swarmed like Pig Pen in Peanuts. We could only swat them away for so long, because we needed all of our attention on securing our footing and making sure that we were safe.
Making my way down the last dirt and rock ridge, I was struck by the sweet and fragrant smell of wild sage. I breathed in the aroma and mused: “Is this the smell of death?” Morbid, yes, but still amazingly beautiful that in the midst of such turmoil, I could be moved by beauty. I was incredibly focused on the reality and necessity for survival because I refused to be a statistic and news story. But unfortunately, I’m not as smart as I think I am, and as I searched for a place to break through the tree line and get safely down the last ridge, I realized that the terrain was too steep. Dennis, smart man that he is, didn’t not follow and searched for a better way down. He shouted out, “What are you doing?” “Trying to get down,” I replied. But the truth was that I was trying to get back up. I found the terrain too steep and I couldn’t get down without hurting myself.
I removed my pack, held it awkwardly in one hand, my walking stick in the other, and began to climb and pull myself to safety. At this point, Dennis had gone to the right to search for a safe way done, and once I got back up to the point where I could change course, I went left. I found my “safe” way down the ridge and slowly made my way through the forest, inching closer and closer to the lake.
Tripping, thirsty and tired, I plodded through the forest terrain getting scratched by tree branches, ultimately not caring, panicking that I didn’t know where Dennis was, hoping that he was okay. I finally came across a goat trail, following it briefly only to realize that it went nowhere. So, down through the bushes I went, until I finally reached the Walupt Lake #101 trail.
But there was still no sign of Dennis. My imagination was getting the best of me. Was he safe? Was he hurt? Where is he? I called out a few times, but heard no response. I drank the last of my water and ate the rest of my food, wandered the trail for a little bit, until I decided to head back to the car so that I could rehydrate and rest before heading back if I needed to.
I continued towards the trailhead and realized that he was up ahead! He was safe! We made it! Meeting up at the trailhead, we chatted and warned three people about the dangers of the hike. My legs and arm, bloody from bushwhacking and hitting the tree, were proof of the danger involved, and thankfully they changed their plans.
Needless to say, this was a trip that I will never forget. In addition to the scrapes and cuts, my lower back is inflamed where the pack rested. My legs are bruised and my body is covered in over 60 mosquito bites. But, in the midst of the adventure, I would go back, as long as there is little to no snow.
So, getting to the point of the post, three ways to save a life, what can you do to learn from my escapades?
#1: Plant a Tree
Not meaning to be a tree-hugging hippy by any means, but plant a tree. It might grow up and save someone’s life. You could also argue against this by saying it could take a life, but a tree can save lives. Plus, they smell good and are beautiful. Visit ArborDay.org for more ways to plant trees and learn more about why trees are important.
#2: Take a Basic First-Aid and CPR Course
Knowing how to treat injuries and making sure that people are safe, regardless of whether you are in the wilderness or in your local coffee shop, is important. You never know when basic first-aid and CPR will come in handy, and it is better to know what to do in moments of crisis instead of panicking and looking to others that may or may not be able to help. Visit RedCross.org to learn about available first-aid and CPR classes in your area and additional ways to be prepared.
#3: Enroll in Wilderness Survival School
Dennis makes a great fire. I learned by watching him work exactly what I need to do in order to make a fire that is not only going to last, but is safe and warm. In a way, watching and learning from Dennis has been a form of Wilderness Survival School, but there are many things that a person could learn by attending a real Wilderness Survival School that would be beneficial for backpacking trips: building fires, knowing which plants are safe to touch, berries and foliage that are safe to eat, how to follow animal tracks, what to do when wildlife is encountered, and many things that I obviously don’t know about. A lot of benefits, definitely not for urban settings, but a definite must for the urban and suburban-ites that want to safely escape into the wild. There are many options available throughout the country. One option for people in the Pacific Northwest is the Northwest School of Survival that has public training programs including avalanche safety, backcountry survival, mountaineering, navigation and snowmobile safety.
I love nature and backpacking, I always will, but through this trip I recognize the importance of being safe, knowing how to survive, and learning how to act safely and appropriately when your life is in danger. I will definitely be pursuing these three tips for saving lives and I look forward to safer, more enjoyable times in the wild.