It’s Ok if you don’t make the destination!
The outdoors are a great place to think, let off steam, share your accomplishments with others, or just enjoy what nature offers but how do you know when you have gone too far and are now outside your ability?
Everyone has a limit
I am a very prideful person and maybe even more competitive. Many times in my life I have tried something and worked at it until I was at the top of my game, almost until I was burned out physically and even mentally. But when is it crossing the line to overstep your abilities to the point of being unsafe to yourself or others in nature?
In 2016 , at the age of 37, I decided to solo hike the High Sierra trail in September. It had been years since I had hiked over a mile anywhere much less camped on my own. This would be a first in many ways. I knew it was 72 miles and would cross some of the most beautiful yet dangerous areas of the Sierras. Luckily the trail is merely a hike and not difficult in the way of route finding but can be very strenuous hiking up to 15 miles a day at times and gaining 3-4,000 feet within those same miles.
My biggest fear was altitude. I had never been above 10,000 feet and now I was going to 14,505 on the last day of the hike summiting the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney. I had read of the deaths on the trail and primarily Whitney and was concerned. Even as I write this the mountain has taken another victim. Condolences to the family for their loss. From the High Sierra trail side of the mountain there are no “bail” out points. It was either forward or backward another 5 days.
Let me step back to my younger years for moment. Growing up, my dad took me into the mountains either for work (Forest Service) or for hunting. We were always outdoors. At the age of 17, I was working for the Forest Service with the Hot Shots fighting fires and clearing trails. In the winter I was working as a ski instructor at Ski Apache. I had my fair share of outdoor experience, so much so that it took me roughly 20 years to get back out there.
As I hiked alone in the Sierras I thought, “this isn’t too bad” until about day 3 of 6 when my feet started hurting and my back felt like it would fall off (if it could) but I continued. Each day had another goal. Make it to the next checkpoint, camp, eat, sleep and repeat. At no time did I feel I was putting myself at risk. On day 6, I woke up at 12:30 a.m. and hiked up to the summit of Mt Whitney.
Over the next year I thought about the joy I had accomplishing a big task and decided I would summit Mt Rainier next. Now if you don’t know the difference between the two, Rainier is shorter but has permanent glaciers on it and requires a completely different hiking.
In August 2017, I met up with a group and prepared for the next “hike”. Day one was hiking up to the snow line to practice using alpine boots, roping up to each other, walking in crampons, and how to use your ice axe. On the way up I asked the guide “can we stop for a break” to which he simply replied “nope”. I was in trouble. My thighs were burning so bad I thought they would give out. I made it up to the training area and the rest of the day flew by without even thinking about my legs. I was learning so much and absorbing every bit of it!
Day two we had to hike up to the halfway point, Camp Muir, where we would sleep for the night to prepare for summit day. This hike is roughly 4 hours long and gains roughly 4,000 feet of elevation. The first hour in I was feeling good walking in trail running shoes. I was super confident. At the first break we reached the snow line again and we put on our alpine boots. These boots weigh roughly 2.25 lb. per boot. I was not ready for that.
Minute by minute my legs got increasingly more exhausted. I was worried I wouldn’t even make it to the halfway point. The only drive was the individuals hiking behind me that was waiting on me to take another step and my pride. 4 grueling hours later I made it. Time to eat and sleep. Hopeful this feeling doesn’t continue the next day.
Prior to my Rainier attempt, I had done little to no training. Why should I? I summited a mountain taller than this one a year prior without too many aches and pains. I ran a couple 5ks with my oldest son, did a couple local hikes in Texas, and maybe one or two workouts at the house. I had this in the bag.
Day three- We woke up at 11:00 pm day two actually and put all our gear on. Harness, rope, crampons, and layer of clothes to keep warm and began walking by midnight. Within 30 minutes the pain in the thighs came back. I was beginning to trip on the rope, trip in my crampons, and become so winded that I couldn’t hardly get enough air. It was back! I knew that the group would stop every hour to take a break but that was a whole 30 minutes away.
Decisions: Now this is where this story is important. I had many decisions to make over the next 30 minutes. Continue and risk taking three others into a crevasse with me, tear the rope to shreds by stepping on it, suck it up and deal with the pain, what will the other 15 people in the group think of me, is anyone else suffering, how far to the top, and on and on. Notice how decision making went from sane to irrational thoughts? This is exactly how it happened. I immediately stopped every thought in my head except for safety related thoughts. My pride is not worth my safety nor the safety of the other 3 people I was roped up with.
Decision made. I leaned over to the guide and said “I’m Done”. This hurt my pride more than any of you reading this could have imagined. What hurt worse is when he said “Ok, we will hike back down with you after the next rest stop.” WHAT?? I had to continue on for 30 more grueling minutes? So for the next 30 minutes all i focused on was step, “be safe”, step, “be safe”, and on and on.
Over the next year I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do. Do I want to continue hiking? Do I want to hike with others? What do I do with the $2,000-$3,000 in gear I now have?
The decision was made. I have a score to settle with that mountain. I joined a local hiking group and realized it was for casual 2 to 3 mile hikers watching birds and plants. This wasn’t going to cut it. There is no way this will get me to where I won’t struggle again. So the next step was create my own group. The group has grown from 1 member to almost 400 within a year. We have summited 12 Colorado 14,000 + foot mountains. We have hiked many multi day trips together. During this time I didn’t complete one trip due to family emergency issues. All other hikes I completed including hiking 6 14,000 foot mountains in two days.
Our group was ready! In October of 2018 I decided we would go back to the High Sierra trail and since I had already completed it I would lead it. Over the winter we paid no attention to weather or California snow fall. Why would we? We were applying for permits in May for a June hike. Flowers and butterflies the whole way right? As April and May fast approached, we noticed many hikers opting out for the hike in our group and within the park application process. Reports of a 202% snowfall year in the Sierras were circulating. As the group size dropped from 12 to 5 we all planned accordingly. Waterproof boots, layers of clothes, crampons, mountaineering axes, and a rope and harness seemed like a mandatory gear list as May came and went.
We were as prepared for the snow as we could be! We flew out to California excited and nervous at the same time. I had many thoughts myself including my own abilities and now worrying about the ability of others. The team is only as strong as the weakest member.
Day one: We started our hike out strong but within the first two miles one member said “can we slow down?”. This wasn’t a good sign and was bringing back memories and not good ones. Something to note, for this trip we each had 35-50 lb. packs depending on gear. My pack weighed in at a whopping 49.5 at the airlines. This wasn’t counting the 9 pound rope and water but i was ready. At our first obstacle we noticed that we were going to have to give some assistance to two of the team members. It was a water crossing however was running dangerously fast and didn’t have a nice landing if you went over the edge. This was a sign of how the rest of the trip might unfold. Water crossing number two consisted of the same danger and assistance. We made it to our checkpoint camp around 4 and in good time however there was some moaning and groaning. The kind you hear from your kids when you tell them to do the chores.
Day two: The day started out with lots of route finding in the snow and uphill but was so distracting to myself and another team member that we didn’t pay much attention to much of the issues with the group’s ability. Quite the contrary to the day prior we felt strong. As the day progressed we mad it to obstacle three (another water crossing) and using the rope we were all looking good to knock the trail out. As we gained elevation we started hitting patches of snow and we noticed we were sinking in a bit. Ever had a slushy from a fast food joint? Thats how the top 3 inches of snow was feeling as we walked across it. When we hit camp site 2 at around 1 pm we had a decision to make. Go into the snow fields at 9k feet and risk walking in the dark to camp or stay put. I made the decision to stay. This kind of snow is dangerous more than just walking on it. Hopefully the snow would harden up through the night.
Day three: We started off day three at 5:30 a.m. and immediately were faced with obstacles. Water crossings, patches of angled 45 degree snow, lots of climbing up, and broken trails. I had hoped that the experience of the group would get stronger throughout the day as we met each obstacle and passed them. The plan was to make it to the saddle in the mountain (10,600 feet) by 11:00 a.m. and continue on our day. This was going to be a 15 mile day. 11:00 came and went and we kept climbing. Hiking in snow takes much more energy than on rock or dirt. Every step is kicking snow. On severe angles you are kicking steps in so
you don’t plummet 500 plus feet off the mountain. This was taking a lot of energy. As we made it to the top we noticed that of biggest challenge lay ahead of us. There was a 20-30 foot snow drift that we would have to climb over and back down before we could see where we were going. I had already fallen through the snow (postholed) once. My right leg was dangling somewhere below the snow, touching nothing, while the rest of my body was above the surface. This scared the …… out of me. It was 75 degrees outside and the snow was melting and softening fast. At the top we took a break for what seemed like an hour when the decision was made. The High Sierra trip was over.
Many decisions we make in life are to make us better, for our family and for our friends. None are more important that safety. Wearing seatbelts, using your blinker, cooking chicken thoroughly etc. Hiking in the outdoors is no different. Although most of us may have been capable of finishing this trip, not all in my group were and I felt responsible. This was Mars to them and they were counting on me to “lead” them. I recognized the dangers and they were piling up faster than I could keep track.
We are all safe and sound back at home with loved ones preparing for our next big adventure. Know your limits, know the limits of those around you, recognize danger and you will always have memories to look back on build you as a better outdoors person. Remember, the mountains will always be there.