Part II – The Only Way Home is Down
The last few hundred yards was like walking through a storm in the desert, snow moving like sand beneath my feet. Coming off the steep sidehill and into the throat of the drainage, the wind picked up speed as it forced its way through the pass. It scrubbed snow into frozen talcum powder which obscured the surface like fast-moving layers of clouds. Ripples formed a half millimetre high, randomly positioned curves and curls that shifted like tiny dunes with the wind.
Looking down and counting steps, I immersed myself in the illusion, gazing with lazy focus at snowshoes and powder swirled into sastrugi on the ground. There was a rhythm to its movement; it pulsed and filled in where the last wave faded. It was subtle, a thing easily missed, but I watched as wind sculpted the snow at my feet.
Glancing back at the line I’d taken up the drainage, I enjoyed the simplicity of the track. Steady and straight, the oval imprints were my signature and they did not look out-of-place. It was not as though they spoiled the view or made the scene less natural. It was sign, that’s all… and it moved naturally up the drainage.
Then I turned to look over the pass, a low spot that resembled a saddle between two peaks. Scanning the miles of mountain wilderness that spilled out below me, I looked for the trail to the West Fork. It dropped from the junction at the pass down a steep switchback to the right before turning left and under the dark face of Woodtick.
The trail traversed the shadowy bottom of the mountain, slipped over a false ridge, and down into the lakes of West Fork. From there, it was a long day’s hike in good weather to my final destination. But I couldn’t see the trail or the sign that marked the junction. It was not up on the shoulder of Woodtick, nor where it dropped off the pass at the trail to Martin Mountain. I had to be within a few yards of it but there was nothing to see except snow.
I looked back up the ridgeline of Woodtick, saw the trees that marked the edge, and realized that snow blocked my way home. I couldn’t get to the switchbacks that led down to the trail, nor could I safely walk under the dark face of Woodtick. Stepping out toward the edge but not too far; I was only necessarily brave. That’s when I realized the trail was closed to me.
The summit and descending ridgeline of Woodtick was disfigured by enormous cornices. Usually elegant cantilevered snow structures formed by wind drifting snow on the leeward side of a ridge, the cornices on Woodtick were ragged ice balconies taller than trees, more seracs than cornices, and I was taken aback by their presence. Wind had pushed snow past the edge of the ridgeline and created platforms that failed to curl like a typical cornice. Instead, they jutted out and hung over Woodtick’s nearly vertical face, leaned out past the ridgeline, and would break away if I walked out too far on them.
I was astonished and somewhat deflated. I just finished a long, tedious hike, I expected a leisurely walk to the bottom. It would only take an hour or two to descend the switchbacks and walk to the other side of Woodtick. There was a high glade there that provided heavenly rest before the day-long walk to Meyers Cove. I should have felt somewhat elated, but the problem I faced on the saddle by Woodtick caught me completely off-guard. A slow dread laid heavy on me.
I didn’t actually need the trail in the winter. It took a high line at the base of the mountain to get around the deadfall in the bowl. Since the bowl was full of snow, I could shortcut straight across to the other side. The simplest solution was to forget the trail… go down the ridgeline past the cornices and jump off the ridge. Then I could break trail and traverse the mile-wide bowl, and climb to the ridge on the other side. Simple but not easy, it was better than going back down the way I came.
I looked through the cornices to gauge the real ridgeline. Then I imagined the solid edge of the mountain under the snow and visually extended it down the shoulder. I stayed behind it as I moved further down the ridge.
A hundred yards down the ridge from the intersection of the trails, I could walk to the edge. It was steep but not a cliff, and I would probably not freefall more than thirty feet. Nor would I bottom out when I made contact with the slope, because the side was steep and heavy with snow. I might slide or tumble but probably not stop, and I wondered if I should remove my snowshoes.
On one hand, they could break my fall. They might prevent being me impaled by a tree, and possibly set me gliding to the bottom of the drainage. On the other hand, they might break my ankles or knees on impact, or otherwise damage my body. Or worse, they might go off in different directions. However, if I jumped with just boots, I might go deep and be injured by something far below the surface. I stood on the inhospitable shoulder of Woodtick and considered unreasonable options.
After I weighed the possibilities, I removed the rawhide snowshoes and tossed them off the edge. I watched them tumble and bump and slide out of sight. Then I removed the tech ‘shoes from my pack, tightened up the laces on my boots and lashed the small metal platforms to them as securely as possible. I tightened every cord on my jacket and pants, knotted my yeti hat under my chin, and cinched tightly every strap on my backpack. Then I stepped up to the edge of the ridge, looked down for a landing spot, and pushed off with my chest up, both feet together, and gloved hands outstretched shoulder high.
There was no lift in my jump. I did not spring away from the ridge and arc away from the slope… a graceful figure drifting down like the snow. I dropped like a pillar of stone and the snow erupted when I made impact. My bones did not break because the steep slope and snow deflected me downhill. Struggling to keep feet down, I used the snowshoes to slow and control my high-speed crash down the mountainside. I stopped with both poles still strapped to my arms, snowshoes and boots attached to my legs, and arms and legs attached to my body. I held my breath and listened for any after-effects of my tumble into the drainage. But all was quiet in the great snow bowl. I arrived at the bottom in one piece.
I slogged through the deep powder accumulated at the bottom of the great trough beneath the mountain and found my long rawhide snowshoes. I wanted to rest but daylight faded rapidly and I had more work than I expected between me and the end of the day.
Safe For the Moment
As I crossed the deep powder ocean that laid silent in the bowl below Woodtick, I stopped to take pictures of the ragged cornices above. They were taller than the trees around them. I felt safe as I moved across the snowfield, but I did not feel good. Bold by necessity but not necessarily brave.
(Excerpted from “Alone on Purpose“)
Part III tomorrow…