Thirteen days from the Columbia Gorge and fifty yards from Sheep Lake, I broke camp around 8:00 a.m. to begin another day of hiking. My goal was to reach Razors Edge before late afternoon shadows created even further challenges to my poor depth perception. At 72 years of age, that reality had to be factored in to any day of hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail.
My morning trail led upward about two miles to the base of Cispus Pass, where other hikers had told me I would have to traverse a steep and expansive snowfield. I had already encountered several over the past week and the thought of what lay before me gave cause for palpable anxiety. I would need to hike across a hundred yards of snow, then scramble up another hundred feet of loose shale to reach Cispus Pass.
My decision to forgo packing crampons now felt particularly short-sighted and foolish. At less than ten ounces, they would have added little weight and taken minimal space in a side pocket of my pack. Had I calculated that a few snowfields wouldn’t be a problem to an old seasoned backpacker like me?
Within an hour of breaking camp, I stood at the foot of the narrow trail that led across the snowfield. I shook my head in disbelief. There were several hundred feet down the side of the mountain and nothing to break a slide if I lost my footing. And looking up, the way to the Pass was equally steep and foreboding. But there was no other option. I took a deep breath, mustered some courage, and tried to set aside my usual fear of heights. Yet with my pack still strapped on and my path clear, I hesitated. I stood waiting for something to convince me it was time to begin.
A man with two large dogs had gone just minutes before and left his boot imprints in the snow. I figured I could simply use his tracks. But just then a group of young men I had meet the day before came up behind me, so I stepped away from the trail and let them pass. They were young, virile and fearless. I hated them! I silently convinced myself that if they could do it, by God, so could I.
Once again, I stepped out onto the snowfield and crunched into the first boot imprint left by the last hiker. One imprint after another, I slowly followed. But in less than fifty feet I felt my boots slipping on snow that had turned to ice the previous night. I stood still for a few seconds, took another deep breath, and gingerly continued. About five steps farther, my feet slipped out from under me. I instinctively twisted my body, falling so that I landed on my butt. Immediately, I began to slide down the side of the mountain. I hastily jammed both feet and my trekking poles into the snow to slow my slide. With my pack strapped securely to my back, I feared I would become an enormous boulder gathering snow and velocity until I flipped over and barreled down the long slope to the rocky bottom.
Miraculously, after about thirty feet, I suddenly stopped. My stomach, though, accompanied by my pounding heart, continued on down the mountain. I sat, determined not to move an inch, while I tried to collect myself before I went into a full-on panic attack.
I heard one of the men yell down to me. “Stay put and I’ll come down to you!”
I yelled back over my shoulder, “No way! I got myself into this mess. I’ll figure it out!”
After a long couple of minutes, I began cautiously to scoot myself upwards and backwards towards the spot where I had slipped, moving carefully, inch by anxious inch, and the entire time whispering, “Be calm. You are just fine. This is part of the adventure.”
Actually, I was terrified beyond words but I dared not acknowledge my fear. In this situation, fear was my enemy. I needed calm and resolve. Up and up I scooted towards the icy trail of boot prints until I could feel my cold, wet butt on the flattened trail. Finally! But the ordeal wasn’t over. I sat considering how I was going to hoist myself back on my feet. With a heavy pack on my back, hoisting wasn’t going to be an easy task, and I had spent so much physical and emotional energy over the past several minutes that I questioned whether I had enough reserves left. Yet somehow I found the resolve, and using my trekking poles as support, I hoisted myself back on my feet. But in so doing, I got turned around, facing back to where I had begun. “Oh crap!” I blurted, but, gratefully, I was vertical and not splayed out on some boulder below.
As it turned out, facing in the “wrong” direction was fortuitous. I needed to return to where I had begun, sit down, and collect myself before attempting the crossing again. I backtracked to the edge of the snowfield, about fifty feet away, dropped my pack, and collapsed on the soggy ground.
After a few minutes of rest, I heard footsteps crunching towards me. I sat up and saw that someone familiar was a few feet from where I sat. It was one of the guys from the group that had begun the crossing just before me. When he saw that I had slipped, he broke away from the group and came back over the snowfield.
“How ya doing, buddy?” he asked.
“I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
“That was a rough go back there,” he said with a broad smile and calm voice. Without another word, he took off his pack and began riffling through it. In seconds he pulled out a set of crampons still in their package and thrust them towards me.
“Here, take these. I don’t need them and you sure as hell do.”
I fitted them on my boots and asked, “Where can I meet you on the trail and return them?”
“No need. I own a restaurant in Bellevue, so someday after you’ve returned, assuming you return,” he chuckled, “bring your wife or girlfriend in and return them. I trust you.”
I wrote down the name of his restaurant, and with that quick exchange, he turned around and hiked back across the snowfield.
The crampons worked perfectly, and I was able to get across without further incident and up to Cispus pass. There I sat under a scrubby pine tree that seemed to be growing out of solid rock, wrote several pages in my journal, and chewed on some trail mix. From where I was sitting, I could see down to where I could have landed if I hadn’t stopped my slide. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I felt calm and peaceful and deeply grateful for all the kindness and generosity that others had offered me over the past several days and on that day in particular, a gift from a Trail Angel who just happened to have a set of crampons.
And, too, it struck me that in the wilderness we seem to become transformed into people we have always wanted to be…more kind, more trusting, more generous, just as my Trail Angel was…but for some reason fail to be in our busy lives back home. What gets in our way? I wondered.
Several days after I returned home, I sent the crampons back to my Trail Angel with a gift and a note of gratitude, both for his help and for reminding me that kindness is its own reward.
This story is excerpted from Almost There: Stories and Musings along the Pacific Crest Trail.