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Peak-Bagging Tales From an Idiot Near You

This is the second installment of my three part series, Soloing Exploits of Years Past That I’m Not Getting Enough Credit For. The first part concerned my ascent of Sloan Peak.

As this glorified trip report progresses the discerning reader will notice something strange: the lack of photographs relative to my other posts. While I did bring and use a camera on these hikes, about a year and a half ago my laptop was stolen and my backups were woefully out of date, resulting in about a year’s worth of documents being lost.

There is a principle in risk analysis to the effect of: people will manipulate their circumstances until they reach the level of risk and difficulty to which they are accustomed. Think the climb might be a little out of your league? Then bring a large group and an exacting route description. Think the climb might be a little easy? Then free solo it or string a couple together. This is the idea behind the link-up, what was once a suitable challenge in and of itself is now regarded as too easy and must be combined with others to reach that magical I’m-not-sure-I-can-do-this challenge fulfillment point. As a scrambler you reach this point relatively quickly. Class 3 to 4 scrambles are like ice climbing, they increase in difficulty to a point but it’s not a truly open ended scale, there is no WI8, there is no 4.9+, instead of getting harder they just get more dangerous. So unless you are up for utter chossfests and all the objective danger that they entail, link-ups are really the only way to make scrambling hard once you get comfortable on class 4. This is the origin of peak-bagging: quantity over quality, as many high points as you can hit in a day, real dumpster diving. I’ve never really gotten into this kind of “climbing,” I’ve been on a couple such trips with friends of mine who are into it, tagging 3-4 “summits” in short succession, and while it makes for a good workout, it’s just not that fun as long as everything goes well. With a couple alterations though, it can be a good day out, you just have to go alone and make sure something almost goes wildly wrong. I have only actually managed this a handful of times.

On the east side of Steven’s Pass, before you get to the more popular hiking destinations around Leavenworth, you pass an area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness called Nason Ridge. The prime attraction of Nason Ridge is Merritt Lake. In the summer it’s a short, buggy, overcrowded day hike but in the winter, as long as you can drive to the trailhead, it’s a halfway enjoyable snowshoe outing. Above Merritt Lake to the west is am aptly named substantial lump of rock called Mount Mastiff and there is a semi-popular traverse that links it together with the nearby Mount Howard and Rock Mountain. The best way to do this trip involves a car shuttle between to trailhead so, being alone, I opted to cut Rock Mountain out of the mix and return from Howard to the Merritt Lake trailhead. I am aware of exactly how pedestrian all of this sounds; oh look at me I planned a hike! But in order to understand what went wrong you have to understand my intended route.

Nason ridge

Red is intended route, blue is actual route as it differs.

 

The essence of what followed was that I never found the Nason Ridge trail. The snow was classic mid-spring, forest floor hard pack and if there were any bootprints I didn’t see them (more on that later). So down Crescent Creek I went, becoming increasingly concerned that I had yet to see any indication of a trail. In the muddy hollows the mosquitos were already vicious. At some point my pocket zipper opened of its own accord and my map was lost. I had about two lines of a random U2 song running on repeat in my head: “You say love is a temple, love the higher law, you ask me to enter but then you make me crawl…” I like that song and still I wanted to rip Bono’s goddamn head off.

Sometime before I lost the map I had actually realized my mistake and had begun to traverse, hoping to intersect the Merritt Lake trail somewhere below where I had originally intended to. At one point I passed though a heavily forested, and therefore snowy, section and although I didn’t see my bootprints from the way up I could not be sure I had not passed them by mistake. Sometime later I reached an old logging slash; none of the terrain east looked familiar but several thousand feet below me Hwy 2 wound along next to Nason Creek. I wasn’t sure where I was in relation to any trail, without a map my chance of going back and finding the Nason Ridge trail was miniscule, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to retrace my steps back up to Mount Howard. After about ten minutes of pondering my options my decision was simple: Fuck it, the road’s right there, downhill all the way.

So I tried to beat my way down to Hwy 2. Most of it was a sort of half-sliding, bush-belayed, controlled fall. By about a mile of this I looked like I had gotten in a fight with a house cat. By another mile I was bleeding seriously enough that had I not been as panicked I would have stopped to patch myself up. I was really lucky there were not any cliff bands. At some point I stopped and realized that I could no longer hear any road noise and the foliage had been too dense to actually see my destination for some time. What kept confusing me, though, were these weird little game trails – loose dark earthen meandering lines of large hoofprints, maybe elk, that would lead past piles of beer cans before disappearing. The valley finally leveled and I resigned myself to the fact that Hwy 2 had disappeared. I wasn’t sure what had happened but I figured I would climb back up the hillside until I could see where I was trying to go.

The real problem with thick brush is that it is virtually impossible to just turn around, you simply have no idea which way you came. I had thought that the slope of the hill would provide an infallible navigational aid but I was mistaken and when I went to reverse my path I found myself stumbling downhill again until I arrived at a barbed wire fence. Not wanting to injure myself any further I walked along this boundary until I came to a point where the wires had rusted though. Just past the fence was an old road and I saw, as I began to trudge along, a man with two huge dogs coming toward me. He was older, maybe in his early 60s, and stocky, and the dogs, white hounds with red ears that must have weighted 200 lbs. each, were attached by lengths of chain to a massive leather belt he wore like a back brace. As he neared the dogs began to bark and strain against him and he leaned back steeply into their leashes. I tried to ask him where I was and how to find Hwy 2 but he just shook his head and told me that these were Caledonian mastiffs and that if they really wanted to get at me he wouldn’t be able to stop them.

The road lead to a tunnel with a sign hanging from the entrance that read “Sunwise Mine” and just as I was about to turn around a man completely covered in leaves stepped out of the forest and gestured toward the black mineshaft. When I tried to walk around him he refused to let me pass, so I dropped my backpack and dug out my headlamp and, with a tightness in my throat, walked into the darkness. The road inside and wide and smooth, like it had been built as a train tunnel but I saw no sign of railroad tracks. Once the light from the entrance faded I turned on my headlamp to avoid making a wrong turn but there were no side passages. In the dust on the ground there were faint footprints and after an indeterminable length of time I began to glimpse a hiker ahead of me.

She was shorter than I was and had shoulder-length brown hair and was wearing a green and white striped shirt. Whenever I would pick up my pace and try to catch up with her she would glance behind and then disappear around some slight bend and it would be another ten or twenty or thirty minutes before I would see her again. She carried no backpack and no light. I recall that her face was striking but I cannot now remember what it looked like. Neither can I remember the tunnel ending. It was like I got lost in some train of thought and when I came to I was walking along the highway with power lines overhead and cars driving past. Sitting on a guard rail trying to summon up the energy to hike the remaining three-odd miles to the trailhead I drank the last swig of my water and began to look longingly at the stream running into the culvert under the highway. With some trepidation I filled up my canteen and took a long drink. Later, while driving home, I noticed a dead mosquito floating in the dregs.

Although it was the first, this was not my last ill-conceived descent from an otherwise ordinary peak-bagging trip. Several years later I hiked up to Robin Lakes to spend a couple days tagging summits and generally wandering around enjoying myself. This was some time before I obtained my first smartphone and I had been cragging at Index and Leavenworth for most of the last week. The point being that I had no idea what the weather forecast was. So sometime later the second night, while I was drifting to sleep reading Clash of Kings, the side of my tent started lighting up. My first thought was that it was just some random guy with a headlamp but when it continued every few minutes for something like half an hour, I got out to take a look. What I saw was the sky to the south being lit up by these weird green flashes. As a Seattle native I know what a thunder storm looks like, it starts raining really hard and then you hear thunder maybe two or three times and then if you are lucky you might see a flash of lightning. This was silent and it looked nothing like that. In my half-asleep stupor I found myself seriously considering the possibly that the world was ending. It slowly dawned on me that this could be a major storm and that my tent was the highest thing for a hundred feet in every direction. Then I sort of panicked. I tore down my tent, shoved it and everything inside of it into my backpack and set out for the trailhead.

About the time I dropped beneath the lowest of the Robin Lakes the storm arrived. The wind picked up and I could see the green flashes in the clouds directly overhead. As I scrambled down the granite slabs disturbing thoughts started creeping up, thoughts like, “wasn’t this a well-cairned route?” and “did the trail really hit the lowest lake’s outlet, or was it way higher on the ridgeline?” and then white beams like searchlights began to illuminate the granite around me. I’m not sure why but it seemed very important that I not find myself directly in the light and somehow I avoided them until I reached Tuck Lake, but just as I was descending the final part of the scramble route I slipped on some wet grass and slid into the water. It was so cold I felt instantly paralyzed, like I couldn’t breathe or yell or kick my legs, and the granite slab I had slid down was steep and featureless. As I began to sink, my sodden boots and backpack pulling me down, the white beams found me in a sudden rush of wind something seized me out of the water and carried me into the air. I’ve seen eagles catch salmon in the Puget Sound and although that night I never saw a giant bird that’s the only thing I can liken it to. Strange as it may seem I actually fell asleep almost as soon I had had left the water.

In my normal, day to day, life I sometimes have trouble separating dreams from reality. There are places that I cannot ever remember going while awake that I am still unconvinced do not exist. In this instance I am completely incapable of separating what happened from what I then and later dreamt was happening. I saw a film some time ago about a Jesuit priest traveling with the Algonquin people of Ontario in the late 17th century and I do not know if this is true, but it described how in their worldview dreams show us the true world and that our waking lives are the passing illusion. I don’t doubt many find this absurd but to me it seems as likely as any other truth.

From the lake I was carried to a high ridgeline on which sat the wreckage of an aircraft shot down in some crime of which my forebears were guilty. Other men had come too, seeking revenge, and to escape them I lowered myself on some old fixed line off the precipice without harness or belay, and as the icy rope began to slip through my finger and I looked downward into the dark abyssal storm, I called out to God, “Why have you brought me here?”

I do not believe in God. I didn’t then and I don’t now but I lost my grip on the rope and fell down the mountainside and landed unharmed on the trail near Hyas Lake, just a few miles from the parking lot.

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The lessons here seem obvious, everyone has heard that eighty percent of all craziness happens on descent. Therefore we must be vigilant, for strange creatures accost us and stranger landscapes surround us and if joyful questing holds back our fear, that shield cannot last us our safe returns.

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