Harder Than It Looks

Part III – Sometimes Willpower Isn’t Enough

The three truths of mountaineering are absolute.

“..even on your way down.” I shook my head half-laughing.

It’s always higher than it looks, further than it looks, and harder than it looks; those are the three truths. Jumping off the ridge into the snow bowl wasn’t as high or dramatic as it seemed, but I was glad to be safely passed it. Unfortunately, the shortcut across the basin was going to be further and harder than it looked.

harder than it looks
Looking Up From the Bowl

I was already fatigued. Legs heavy and coordination impaired, I was catching edges with my snowshoes and stumbling over the terrain. My system was misfiring. I tried to eat a granola bar while walking but it wasn’t working out. My mouth was too dry or something. I felt hurried to be out of the bowl by dark, but it was 2 o’clock and I was going slow.

Struggling for Some Reason

Conserving energy, I shuffled the long Alaskan snowshoes side-by-side. Using my poles, I spread the work throughout my body. I concentrated on my breathing; in one nostril, out the other, a cycle for every two steps… thirty steps and a short stop to rest. I’d used that meditative method my entire life and it never failed to provide me new energy. Still, I tired too quickly.

harder than it looks
Icy Cornices Scowling Down from Woodtick

As the sun moved west, Woodtick cast a cold uncaring shadow over the basin. Just a couple hundred feet below the pass, the conditions changed. I looked up at a steep slope covered in deep snow. On the far side of the basin, all I needed to do was climb out. Then I could camp in the glade by the false ridge. But it was harder than it looked.

Sometimes the snow would hold my weight. I would test a step with the long clumsy snowshoe, slowly transferring my weight, feeling the snow pack underfoot. And I could take an awkward step toward the hill.

At other times, the snow would collapse and I would sink up to my hips. If I fell, the weight of my pack would pull me down in the snow. It was such an energy burn to get back up and continue.


Unable to catch my breath while teetering on top of two heavy snowshoes, wet underneath my waterproof shell, I was cold and tired in a way that could not be ignored. Experience recommended a break. I surrendered to the hillside and tried to relax as I removed my pack.

Forced to eat two dates from the bag, my stomach rejected the late attention. I chewed and chewed, but could not swallow. The dates seemed to grow bigger in my mouth. Instead of welcoming the nourishment, my system rejected it.

harder than it looks
Little Mistakes Become Big Problems

My throat grew tighter as I tried to swallow the food and gagged as I choked it down. I sipped water and felt the dates drop into my stomach. I broke off a piece of granola bar and put it in my mouth, and it expanded like dry oatmeal. Like the dates, I could not chew it down. I stuffed snow into my mouth to hydrate the dry food and it seemed to work, so I chewed snow with my granola until it was wet enough to swallow. I was frustrated with trying to eat and gave up after choking down a couple mouthfuls.

The forest surrounding the basin kept the wind down but allowed snow to drift deeply around the trees. There were tree wells and spruce traps, and the surface around them was crusted. Sometimes they held my weight, but sometimes they cracked and swallowed me whole.

Another Try

I’d spy a line, an imaginary path angling up the hill between trees. Every time, it was harder than it looked. Even with the big ‘shoes, I sank with every step. I fell over sideways, my hat came off and snow filled my ears and eyes. I cursed and flailed angrily, and fought the snow that fought me. Leaning into the hill only to fall again, I felt my temper rise.

There were hundreds of feet of hillside to climb and the waypoint for my objective was vague. I imagined the pond in the glade on the other side of the ridge and tried to cosmically connect to it. I was obliged to zig-zag my way up the slope to encounter the trail to West Fork; I had no visual reference. All I could see from the low end of the slope were tall steps in deep snow through a labyrinth of living trees and deadfall.

harder than it looks
A Safe Place Somewhere Up Ahead

I told myself the situation was one I could handle, one I could overcome with willpower. I stood up, slung my pack and grabbed my poles, and squared my snowshoes to the slope. Then I moved a pole and took a step.

The snow crunched and gave way, and I fell into the cold. I took a breath and searched for calm, but felt a surge within me. I thrashed to get the pack off my back, and twisted wildly to get to my knees. With my chin level to the snowpack, I vomited without warning across the white. My stomach convulsed and heaved again, and I stared wide-eyed at what was happening.

System Breakdown

As if outside of me, outside of my control, spasms pushed up nothing but bile and my stomach turned inside out. My body contracted hard with the retching, cold sweat soaked the inside of my hat, and I laid my head into the snow helplessly shaken by the turn of events. I wasn’t going to die but could go no further.

I unstrapped my pack and snowshoes, and pulled my sleeping gear from my bag. I should have changed out my base layer and socks, but hurried into the bag with my boots on. I laid inside, calmed myself, tried to eat but vomited again. Resigned, I scooched around in my bag on my tarp until I found a restful place, then slipped into my cocoon and slept.

There were a couple of inches of new snow on top of me when I woke up a few hours later. I slung the tarp off to fling the snow away from my sleeping bag. With my headlamp, I searched my pack for some cheesy bread, chewed and swallowed it, and it stayed down. I ate the rest of the granola bar I started earlier, ate some snow, then laid back down.

Easier in the Morning

In the morning, I wasted no time. Already dressed, I loaded my gear and tightened things up to continue my climb out of the drainage. I did not move any faster than the day before, but I did not struggle as much. The sleep and light meal gave me enough energy to negotiate the slope and I found my way to the trail on the ridge. The weather was still heavy, so I stopped to warm up with a cup of tea. The trail mix tasted good again and I was happy to feel hungry. I still had the last half of the trip home ahead of me.

harder than it looks
Finally Heading Down to West Fork of Camas Creek

The trail down the West Fork of Camas Creek was long and steep and rocky, and it crossed the water a half dozen times. I slid down to the lakes at the head of the West Fork and decided to take my time getting home. I could make camp somewhere around Pole Creek and leave a six-mile walk for the finish. It was a good decision. I stopped early and slept heavily after eating the last cheesy bread.

(Excerpts from “Alone on Purpose“)

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One comment

  1. Anything what is possible, and what isn’t just takes a little more time. Looks like you’ve met your limits.

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