Saturday, August 6, 2011

Probably not epic, but it felt like it

A day off, planned since the week before. We were four, having just met weeks earlier, who decided on a day off hike over a pass. We checked in with the rangers, found our route, and looked forward to a quick day-off trip through the national park; respite from the tourons we constantly served at the concessionaire where we all worked for that summer.

A couple tents, food, clothes, and we were set to go. Six easy miles in, we camped around a gentle fire. Up over the pass and down to the shuttle car was the plan for the next day as we ate dinner and got comfortable for the night. Next morning, breakfast, and we're on our way.

We made our way down the wide trail, gradually gaining a little elevation as we approached the approach to the pass. Before long, we crossed the creek marking the end of the day hikers' typical reach; and thus the end of wide, easy hiking.

After crossing the high water in the creek, the trail began to drag us up toward the pass. Naturally, as the trail went up, the temperature went down. We stopped, adding what layers of cotton and knit wool we'd thrown into our hastily-loaded packs the day before.

It got colder and colder, but not unbearable. As we moved upward, every turn brought hope of seeing the start downhill from the pass.

Then, treeline.

No longer was there anything to block the wind that had spent the day whistling above our heads the whole way up. And with the wind came snow. We couldn't tell if it was blowing up from the ground or falling from the sky ~ but that didn't matter to our body temperature that plummeted with every snowflake that penetrated our inadequate layers. One shell and a windbreaker made a valiant but failing effort to stave off approaching hypothermia. Crouching behind a boulder, three of us found the shelter to decide that the pass may or may not be close enough - without a map, who's to know? - and that it was time to bail.

So, shivering, we turned again toward the seven miles we'd just covered instead of the three to the car, and headed back toward last night's camp where we planned to restart a small fire to warm up our almost dangerously cold bodies.

We made good time once we slipped again into the trees; then, across the creek, we flew over flat ground toward shelter until we happen to glance up at the rear end of a large bear lumbering the same direction on the same wide trail we're using. So we bide our time, holding back, waiting 'til our ursine friend allows us access to dinner and a little rest before the 5:15 alarm rings calling us to the next day's breakfast shift.

But before the breakfast shift, a dinner stop. The warm vinyl booth around pizza and beer became a welcome sanctuary from which to reflect on our 27-instead-of-10-mile day.

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