Never in September

Eastern View of the Selkirk Mountains

Through practice I’ve come to see the deepest source of my misery is not wanting things to be the way they are. Not wanting myself to be the way I am. Not wanting the world to be the way it is. Not wanting others to be the way they are. Whenever I’m suffering I find this ‘war with reality’ to be at the heart of the problem.

Stephen Cope

Those of you who follow my blog weekly will note that I did not post last week. Instead of writing about hiking, I was actually doing it, a trip long delayed until September. For the first half of the summer I was recovering from an injury. Then the fires came, and it was simply too smoky to be on a mountain trail. Then it was September, and it was go now or not at all. I went. I remembered why it is I do not hike in September.

There is a story here, of course. Many years ago (isn’t it always that way?) I went on a three day backpacking trip with an old boyfriend, Charlie. As was the case this summer, we had put it off, though for different reasons. We had planned on hiking and camping in a popular area of the Olympic Mountains that even then required a wilderness permit and a backcountry reservation. Not wanting our plans to be limited by the Park Service, we chose a weekend in late September, when reservations were no longer necessary after the Labor Day weekend.

The trip started out well enough. We left Charlie’s car in the parking lot at Deer Park and made the steep descent to Three Forks. This is one of the few trailheads that I know of where the hiker starts high and descends, in this case a drop of two thousand feet in four-and-a-half miles. As you might imagine, there are three forks at Three Forks: Grand Creek, the Graywolf River, and Cameran Creek. We chose the route southeast, closely following Cameran Creek, and made camp that night at a beautiful site by the creek, surrounded by old growth forest.

The next day we awoke to continue our route to a junction with the Grand Pass Trail, which climbs again into the high country and the many lakes that attract hikers to this part of the park. We made our camp that night at Moose Lake, watching the sky with some trepidation as we climbed into the tent. As the blue sky of the day had faded, it had turned dark and ominous, and a strong breeze had come up.

Sometime during the night I awoke to the sound of Charlie kicking the walls and ceiling of the tent. “What are you doing?” I asked in alarm.

“It’s been snowing,” he replied. “It’s been snowing a lot.” I turned and found the ceiling of the tent only inches from my face. The weight of the snow had collapsed the rain fly, and the tent had nearly fallen in on itself. Kicking the walls and ceiling was not sufficient to keep the tent upright. We had to go outside in the cold and brush the snow off and pull the lines taut. It was still coming down. We repeated this unpleasant task two more times before there was sufficient daylight to get up, pack up, and make our way to safety.

By this time the tension was growing between us. Charlie seemed to think the best course of action was to skip the usual hot breakfast and get on the trail to save time. I knew in advance this would not work for me, but in the interest of keeping the peace I agreed. It was a cold and strenuous hike through the deep snow, which by this time was well above our knees. It was not long before I had done a face plant in the snow. I felt the familiar lightheadedness and nausea that occur when I have worked too hard with too little nourishment. Charlie seemed annoyed by this delay, but for a change I did not care. I had to either eat or lay there face down in the snow. He waited impatiently while I slowly fed myself orange gumdrops, sucking on them one at a time as if they were a real orange slice. This was my go-to fix for a hypoglycemic reaction, and it did not take long before the trembling stopped, and I could stand upright. I put some gumdrops in my pocket, along with a piece of cheese. I thought it best not to collapse again. It was inconvenient.

The bickering continued, this time over which route to take to safety. He thought it best to go off trail and follow the course of Grand Creek back to Three Forks, reasoning that the lower elevation of the creek valley would make the route easier because there would be less snow. I argued that going off trail in a snow storm, now upgraded to a blizzard, was a really bad idea. Instead I wanted to follow the Grand Ridge Trail back to Deer Park, never mind the blowing snow and the exposed ridge. At least we could clearly see our route by following the ridge line, and if we succumbed to the elements someone might eventually find us. This conversation continued until it was finally drowned out by the wind, a great relief, since I was getting ready to start pelting him with gumdrops.

We continued on in this manner, the wind preserving the silence between us, until we reached the western shore of Grand Lake, where happily we began to see footprints, a few at first in the deep snow, and then growing in number until a path through the snow was apparent. We stepped up our pace. It was not long before we heard the voices ahead of us, a rescue party of a dozen hikers like ourselves, and a ranger, Tom, sent to save the stranded hikers by the Park Service. He and his girlfriend, Juanita, had started out early that morning by flashlight, making their way to the valley, where they had access to a backcountry cabin used by rangers during the summer months. Most of the hikers had spent the early morning hours crowded into the cabin, out of the wind and snow. We were just grateful to have found these rescuers.

Tom was a backcountry ranger here in Grand Valley during the summer months, so he knew the area well. He and Juanita were also skilled mountaineers. We felt like we were in good hands. Tom and Juanita led us through Badger Valley, a lower route that avoided the wind that was sailing over Lillian Ridge. We nevertheless had to ascend to Grand Ridge to make it to the trailhead at Obstruction Point. We were nearly to the summit when Tom disappeared in a whirl of snow, plummeting down the hillside. We watched him wave his arms as he slid. He had been caught in a small avalanche. Fortunately the snow was not deep enough during this first snow of the season to bury him but instead caused him to plummet down the steep slope. I looked on, my heart racing. When no one else offered I began goose stepping down the hill, until slowly I saw his small figure making its way up the hill. He was not injured.

One by one we stepped over the chute that had led to his fall. We were roped up by then, though no one had an ice axe, and I envisioned that if one person slipped the whole party would go down. Fortunately this treacherous slope was only about a hundred yards from the trailhead, where we could see a Park Service vehicle and a canvas tent that had been erected to receive the stranded hikers.

The director of the rescue operation was a seasoned old ranger named Frank who acted as though he did this kind of thing everyday. He was on the radio with Park headquarters in Port Angeles, advising of the progress of the rescue effort. Frank informed us that the snow plow that had been sent to clear the road had been stuck somewhere south of Heart of the Hills Campground. We could not know it at the time, but it would remain there until the following spring. Frank, Tom, and Juanita had arrived sometime during the night via snow coach, and Frank had set up the tent and maintained radio contact while the remaining two rescuers had braved the cold wind and the dark.

There was not enough room in the snow coach to transport all of the rescued hikers to safety. We agreeably established priorities. The young family with the four-year-old boy would be included in the first shuttle, as well as the orthopedic surgeon, who insisted that he had to be in surgery the following morning. Two young men with flimsy shoes were also included. They were showing signs of hypothermia and were an obvious choice.

What they did not know was that those of us who stayed behind would be held in a kind of warm glow of protection. A propane stove warmed the interior of the tent. Frank brought us a tray of brownies, as if he were the maitre de at a fine restaurant. This was followed by tin cups into which he poured from a large thermos of hot chocolate. I was unable to hold the cup in my hands, so violent was the shivering that had suddenly taken over my body. It was the first time I had noticed that I was cold. Instead I had been focused on placing one foot in front of the other and making my way to safety.

I had found it. I felt more than warm, I felt loved. Frank acted as though his sole purpose in life was to assure our safety and warmth. He radioed park headquarters with phone numbers so that our families could be notified. I gave him my parents’ number so that they could pick up my daughters at home where they would soon be delivered after a weekend visit with their dad. Then Frank came around with the piece de resistence, a flask of whisky from which he boosted the warmth of the hot chocolate. I sipped the fiery brew, grateful and warm, feeling very much like a bear that had just entered hibernation. The shivering had stopped, and I wanted to remain in that warmth forever.

In this small enclosure we waited until the snow coach returned and departed with another group. Charlie and I waited until the last shuttle left the parking lot. I saw no reason to depart this sacred space. My children had been taken care of. My belly was fully of whiskey and brownies. I was surrounded by grateful hikers and a man who existed only to make us comfortable and to assure our safety.

The snow coach transported us after several hours to the park headquarters, and from there Tom and Juanita drove us to a motel in Port Angeles. It would be two more days before they were able to shuttle us to our waiting vehicle at the Deer Park trailhead. We were not the only group of hikers to be stranded by the blizzard, and the rescuers had other priorities. The motel room did not have quite the ambience of the tent. Charlie watched football. I read my book.

On my first night home, I sat in bed with my twin daughters, as I did every night, usually reading a book, but that night we just talked. Annie and Leah sat on either side of me, resting their heads on my shoulders, and told me of watching the news with their grandma and grandpa, as the park superintendent was interviewed about the rescue of stranded hikers in a blizzard. I pulled the down comforter up and over us to keep us warm. Warmth had taken on a new urgency for me.

This is the story that went through my mind this week as I lay in the cold a few days ago, wondering why I had gone hiking in September. It is the story I review every time I am cold, conjuring up the warmth of brownies and hot chocolate and whiskey, of little girls pressing closely to keep each other warm.

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

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