At the Mercy of the Mountains
Monday, July 30, 2018
There’s nothing like sleeping on a ridge line. I love it. You get the last of the evening light, and the first light of the morning.
As the sun hits me this morning, I’m awoken to a beautiful sight. Compelled by what I’ll see today, and a back as stiff as the stone I slept on, I leap up to attention. It’s time for coffee and breakfast.
I’m not sure where we are exactly. Somewhere on a ridge, on Simpson Meadow Trail, in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. We are now in the thick of it.
The ranger at Roads End told us that this is one of the least traveled trails in the park. And, come to think of it, we’ve only seen a group of cub scouts within the past two days. Oh, and there was a pack of horses, hitched together and one woman in the lead who passed us by in yesterday’s squall.
I wonder who we’ll see today.
Once our gear is packed, we begin descending from our ridge. Today we will eventually descend to the Middle Fork of the King’s River, and inch our way closer to Devils Washbowel. But, that’s about 15 miles from here, and we’re a little behind our schedule.
We had anticipated to camp further along last night. But that’s how things go on the trail. When your legs fatigue, and twilight looms, the perfect camp often presents itself.
As for today, we are descending.
Down, Down, Down, We’re Going Down
Rachel and I have many songs we sing along the trail. Often they’re a medley of songs only humidity and sweat can fuse together. Years ago in the Olympics my mind had merged the Muppet’s Christmas Carol’s There Goes Mr. Humbug with Nirvana’s cover of Plateau, originally performed by the Meat Puppets.
But today we sing a Rachel original, an ode to going downhill. Once you know the lyrics, it’s simple to sing along. And, it captures the moment with pristine accuracy.
Down, down down – we’re going down
…. and repeat.
As we descend into the backcountry, the vastness is amazing. We often lose the trail as our eyes orient upon the horizon, painted with massive valleys etched into granite monoliths. If it weren’t for the touch of green, evergreens sprouting from the hillsides, our minds couldn’t comprehend the size of what surrounds us. Land, public land, as far as the eye can see.
And, all of a sudden it’s hard to imagine, anywhere but here.
Damn. Where’d the trail go?
Squinting at fine gravel, on a hillside speckled with pine needles, we notice lighter shades of gray, dirt that appears unsettled. Is this the trail? Or was this a stream? We follow to find out.
Down down down, we’re going down.
This trail descends for miles. Our legs are weak from easing the pull of gravity, and our skin begins to darken with every plume of dust that retaliates against our shoes.
The heat is not bad. The sun is not oppressive, and clouds provide some relief. But as the day goes on, and we go down, the humidity begins to rise. My shirt is saturated, and I’m feeling uncomfortably sticky when we encounter an upward bound party of two. We’re the only people they’ve seen today, and they’re the only ones we will encounter.
We interact in a brief exchange. Where we were and where we’re going, passes from mind to mind. This is followed by well wishes – and then we travel on. Dark clouds are building. There are hills to climb, and camps to find.
The Camaraderie of the Backcountry
There’s a kind of camaraderie and kinship that I’ve only ever found among hikers. Among dozens of hikes I remember almost all of the faces I’ve encountered over hundreds of miles in the Sierras, Olympics and Cascades. I recall the topics that we talked about, the joy in exchanging temporary tales as we stopped to catch our breath. And often you catch inspiration.
It’s not that you can trust everyone blindly. But in the backcountry your often relieved to see another face. And, when you’re several days in there’s some mutual respect, and some assumed shared values. You and the people you’ve met have made time to walk several days into the woods to experience nature, away from society and smart phones. This is how we chose to spend our free time. This feeling fuels camaraderie. And, there’s seldom competition.
Above the Kings River
The hillside levels turning to valley meadows. We’ve made our descent, and now sit above the Kings River, which we will follow today and tomorrow.
We’re alone in the valley. We’re miles away, days away from our car.
There’s a sun break in the clouds, and rays shimmer off a creek coalescing with our trail. The crisp clean water, and warmth of the sun are compelling. We drop our bags, and take off our shoes.
We wade into the water, soothing ankles with cool water. On my back, the sun lands and warms my soul. I wonder up the stream grabbing dirt between my toes, my mind soaking up this satisfaction. I look back to where I’ve come from.
There alongside the stream, Rachel’s being productive. She leans over the water, rinsing the previous days clothing, then hangs it on a branch… a toe sock, and a handkerchief. She wrings water from another.
“Good idea” I think, “I suppose I should freshen up as well.” The sun is shining, and inviting. We have all the time in the world.
I pull my shirt from my back, and begin evicting clothes from the previous days. All of my clothes have been worn. All of them need cleaning. I get to work and once they’re rinsed, I strap them to nearby twigs.
We relax and enjoy the moment, then examine our map for our remaining itinerary. We still have several hours until we reach Devil’s Washbowl. We should continue on.
We strap our clothes to our packs. Onward we move.
A Reason to Be Alarmed
We wind along the bottom of a hillside, tapering through the brush then emerge into a tall green grassy meadow. The trail splits in two directions. To the left we see the river. To the right the trail appears to follow the bottom of the hillside, passing through trees that give distance from the river.
Between the two trails where we stand, the grass is folded down. A fire pit is in the middle. Two large trees arch overhead, and two large orange steel storage bins sit. This must be a Ranger’s camp. But no one’s here for now.
We travel left and then encounter the river. The trail tapers off, so we turn around, and return at our crossroads to take the trail to the right.
As we move upward, rocks and dirt lie to our right, eroded from the steep hillside. To our left we can hear the roaring of the King’s River, as we travel closer along it’s edge sneaking peaks between the trees.
Above us thunder cracks. Again, this time closer. The sun of less than an hour ago, is nowhere to be seen. The clouds turn dark, the air is cool, a breeze is at our backs.
The thunder. Now it’s closer.
Our legs pick up their pace. Strides now elongate.
Above us, upon the ridge, from where we once were, the dark clouds begin to gather. We worry for our hiking friends, earlier encountered. This is less than ideal weather.
But this is common in the Sierras. Sun will shine all day. In the early afternoon a thunderstorm moves through. An hour later, the skies are blue.
Our feet move along the trail. Our minds chattering “this will surely pass” as the thunder argues back.
We stop abruptly in trees. We’ve been moving at a solid pace, and our stomach’s now need sustenance. Rachel pulls out the titanium pot, and tosses in some powdered hummus. She begins to add some water, then the clouds decide to add some more.
The sound of drops bouncing off the trees and forest floor begin to fill our ears. The sound grows loud as we rummage for our poncho tarps, and quickly pull our heads through.
I look to Rachel as she stoops over her hummus… and I read “holy shit” upon her eyes.
“Ouch!” I say.
Stinging hits my head, and the forest continues to grow louder, drowning out the sound of the rapids and the river below us. White pebbles bounce up off the ground. I pinch one with my fingers.
Ice. Now it’s hailing.
“This will surely pass”, I think… as we huddle under our ponchos staring at each other.
The hail transforms to rain, a raucous wet explosion. A shower in the high Sierras. Drops explode as they hit the ground, splashing under our ponchos.
This will surely pass, but when I do not know.
I leap toward a tree that sits off trail and drop my bag up against it. I ask Rachel to fish out the paracord from her bag. I need to rig up a shelter, and all I have is this tree.
Rachel tosses me the sandwich bag full of stakes and paracord.
I fidget the tiny rope through the corner loop of my poncho then tie it around the tree’s trunk. I pull the poncho tight on the opposite side with my arm, pull my head out from the hood, and tether the opposite corner to a tiny little tree. I push my head into the third corner, closest to the ground, and drive a stake into the dirt. I pivot to the fourth corner, and pin it with another stake, telling Rachel to climb in.
We stack our bags down near our feet. There’s just enough room in our tiny shelter for us each to avoid the rainfall. But I’m already drenched. And, there’s no signs of this passing.
“Are you warm?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’m okay” Rachel responds. “Are you?”
“I’m okay, but I’m drenched. Are you dry?”
“I’m pretty dry.” I can see her hair is wet, but her clothes appear fairly dry still. Her fingers are cool and wet. We lie like sardines together.
The air is cool. “It must have dropped 10 degrees” I say.
I am soaking wet. All of my other clothes are damp from washing them in the stream. The air has gotten colder. I see no signs of the rain stopping.
The only thing dry I have is my sleeping bag in a dry sac. Thank god it’s dry because it’s down. Once down is wet it’s useless.
“How are you doing? Rachel asks.
“I’m okay but I’m kind of cold.”
We agree this is not a good situation. In the Sierra’s these things tend to pass, but that cannot be for certain until it does. Right now we have bad weather, and we need to plan as if this weather will continue into the night.
We pull out my bivy sack. If the weather does not warm up, I need to get out of my wet clothes, and get warm now. I don’t want to use my down sleeping bag yet because I don’t want to get it wet because that will only make a bad situation worse. I strip down to my skivvies and Rachel and I embrace to generate heat.
“What will we do if this doesn’t get get better” we ask each other.
We must think quickly and clearly, and act smart. If the weather doesn’t lift, we won’t have much room for error. We organize our plans of action into three possible outcomes.
1) The Best Case Scenario
The best thing that could happen is the rain will stop within the next hour. It’s about 4:30 pm now. If it stops, we will still have some sun light. We can possibly air dry some gear, setup camp and start a fire.
This is the ideal situation, and it’s likely. But if it doesn’t we have outcome number two…
2) The Not So Great Scenario
In this scenario it keeps raining and the air cools as we lose light, but the rain does eventually stop. If this happens we decide we will hike back to the ranger camp we passed about 2 miles ago. Inside the large metal bins there is likely some firewood and supplies. We can go back to this spot, start a fire, and we figure we are most likely to encounter a ranger there, in the case that we do need help.
3) The Worst of Situations
In this scenario, the rain continues pouring, the temperature drops. We don’t have this plan completely worked out as we presume it will depend on what’s happening in the moment. But, we can’t imagine standing still is a good action. So, this scenario also involves going back to the Ranger camp. If we need help, this is where we will see a ranger, and possibly find resources. If need be, we can continue hiking into the night.
Like I said, this plan wasn’t completely worked out…
Now We Wait on the Storm
With our scenarios worked out, we watch the weather to see what moves it makes. We pray to a god we never speak. We joke to each other and talk optimistically, while doubt and worry lingers near.
Time passes by, and still it rains. We make promises to the universe, bartering for our lives.
“If I make it out of this, I’ll go home and become a youth pastor” I say to Rachel, joking, yet thinking “if that’s what you want – just get us out of this.”
And then… the rain begins to lighten. I can hear the river below us, no longer muffled by the rain drops. This is good. Real good.
Then I see a crack of light in the clouds. I see blue.
It’s still raining, but it’s soft now.
Then it tapers off.
We climb out from under our tarps.
“Hallelujah!” we exclaim pointing at the blue skies moving our direction. Sun begins to hit the trail. We hug and smile… and laugh. We are alive and in the wild.
We pull out our gear and spread it out in the sunlight to dry it out.
If someone came by now, oh what a sight we’d be. Disheveled and overjoyed.
“I don’t actually have to become a youth pastor now do I?” I ask Rachel.
To Our Camp
We soak up the sun for a while then pack our bags. We need to find a camp. It’s only 5:30 pm now, but we’re not sure where the next campsite will be found since we follow the King’s River for many miles, and the map does not suggest many possibilities.
Shaken, but not defeated, Rachel and I wander further into the wilderness. We find a bend in the river, where the trail meets a sandbar. I’m skeptical about camping here, but it’s dry and there’s a place for a fire, with plenty of wood nearby.
We hang one food bag in a tree, then Rachel sets up our tarp, as I gather wood for a fire. The dusk swallows the surrounding landscape, as the fire crackles and glows heating our hearts. I sit awake stoking it late into the night, still shaken from our scare.
Out here we are just two humans, at the mercy of the mountains.
I climb into my sleeping bag, and sleep swallows my worry.