Sunday, September 25, 2011

Nature, Mountains and Near Death (Part 1)

This blogpost is the first in a four part series about one of my adventures in the mountains in Washington State. You can read the next article in the series here -

Dear Reader, It has been a while since I have written a blogpost. Quite a few incidents have happened in my life since. Many of them make interesting stories. However there is one particular story that is a delight to both tell and listen to. What makes this story exciting for me personally is that I was in the thick of it. Some may find this story exciting and adventurous. While others may think it disturbing and immature. Whatever it is that you feel, I kindly request you to reserve judgement till the end. There are four parts to this series and each deals with a different frame of mind. You will find that I have been liberal in throwing in my personal thoughts and opinions from time to time. I request you to be patient with the prose and read through till the end. I have tried to be as factually accurate as possible while doing justice to the writer's pen. I make no tall claims when I say that this story has changed my life. I hope that you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed telling it.

I presently live in the beautiful city of Seattle which is in Washington state. During the weekdays I intern in a big corporation while in the weekends I head out to explore the wonders of this beautiful region. Being situated on the pacific coast and receiving ample rain makes it green all year round. Tall Cedars and Douglas Firs greet you as you step into the woods. Outdoor activities are very popular in this region, demonstrated by the existence of three REI outlets in Seattle alone. Keeping up with this fervor, I head out to the mountains every weekend for small day hikes. I am part of various mailing lists that send callouts for meeting up to make these trips. One Tuesday, I was delightfully pleased when I saw a new hike announced for the coming weekend. It was sent by a certain Viktor, who I presumed was the hike leader. I pounced on this hike callout as I skimmed its contents. You see, In my mind I usually categorize hikes to be easy or too difficult. The easy ones are the ones I end up going since the difficult ones are out of reach. The difficult ones usually involve multiple days of hiking and traversing snow covered peaks. This level of hiking needs special equipment which I do not possess given my limited student budget. Anyway, the particular hike that Viktor announced did not match either category. This got me excited as it provided me with a chance to level up my hiking abilities.

This is the email that Viktor sent :

*: This hike is for people who genuinely think that doing Enchantments traverse in more than one day means wasting way too much time. Do you fit that description? Are you fit enough to do up to 30 miles and 7000 feet elevation gain in a day? Than this extreme one day hike to see the most of the prettiest lakes of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is for you. We will start at West Foss River trail, traverse through Tank Lakes and return back via Necklace Valley. To make things interesting about 8 miles of this route has no established trail and will require some bushwhacking and even more scrambling.

*DISTANCE:* 22-30 miles

*ELEVATION GAIN:* 6000-7000 feet

*TIME NEEDED:* Full day Saturday


*MEETING TIME AND LOCATION:* 4:15 am sharp in Kirkland (exact location will only be revealed to people who sign up).

*LATEST RETURN TIME:* Late on Saturday or more likely early Sunday.

*MAXIMUM # HIKERS: 4 (counted as the number of legs divided by 2)


- Food and water

- Waterproof clothes

- Headlamp

- FSR radio if you have one

- Trekking poles and gaiters

- Route finding skills and all your luck


On the face of it, it looked pretty challenging. However this the was sort of challenge that I was aching for. Previously in the summer I had completed a trail run in Pittsburgh for 35 miles with 15000 feet of elevation change. In comparison the distance here was lesser (30 miles) with much less elevation change (7000 ft). Also, I was pretty sure that 7000 ft of elevation change in 30 miles would mean that it would be pretty flat throughout. We would surely not hit snow. This was stuff I had done before, I had it in the bag. Nevertheless, what made this endeavor challenging was that part of it would be at night and there would be uncharted territory involved. I reasoned to myself that with a big group it would be a lot of fun. Like going for boy scouts. So, I rationalized to myself, that it couldn't be that bad and then hastily signed up for it. In hindsight, I was way off the mark. Both Viktor and I could never have anticipated the trials and tribulations that would await us.

During the week I had some email exchanges with Viktor. I was trying to see if I could avoid the trekking poles. The few times I had tried poles I had found them to be more of a hindrance. I got the rest of the gear ready, purchased headlamps and gaiters. Headlamps were certainly a necessity since we were going to be night hiking. Gaiters are things that keep dirt and snow out of your shoe. I was sure that I wouldn't need it since we were not going to see snow. But I got one anyway, for future hikes. Meanwhile, Viktor had news for me as well. There would be no large party joining us for the hike. Just Viktor, his friend and I. Somehow I had missed the part in the email which said that max 4 people for the hike. Friday night came and incidentally it was Oktoberfest in Seattle. There was no way, I was not going to pass up the chance. So a friend and I headed over to check it out. It was everything that you can expect from Oktoberfest. Smell of Bratwurst in the air and drunken dudes getting loud and happy. The atmosphere was great though. The feeling of good times was palpable. Were it not for the fact that I was the designated driver, I would have indulged in a lot of good beer. Nevertheless, I returned home around midnight. I had almost forgotten about the hike, until I found my empty rucksack staring at me. I stared back at it for a while as well, regretting that I had signed up for the hike the next day. Eventually, I willed myself to pack it.

My hiking bag and shoes

I found myself standing outside Viktor's house at 4:00 AM. Somehow, I had managed to drag myself there. It was dark and the air was chilly. I caught myself shivering. I was wondering if I was at the right place. I tried Viktor's number a few times but to no avail. Finally, Viktor made an appearance. He was leaner than I had expected. He had a thick accent, which I suspected was of slavic origin. He eventually turned out to be Ukrainian. He wasted no time in explaining to me the plan for the day. We would take 2 cars. The beginning and the end of the hike were in different locations. We would park one car in each location. Soon, his friend joined us. Her name was Tatiana. She was short in stature and did not seem very chatty. Without much ado, we were on the road with me following their tail lights. Driving on freeways can be rather monotonous and I found my thoughts wandering. I was excited about what the day had in store for us. I also had this anxious feeling of oncoming adventure. Much like I have before any long voyage or a major exam. The drive was almost an hour and a half long. It was still dark when we reached the trailhead.

As I stepped out of the car, I was jolted by the cold air. The air was much chillier in the mountains. I was just in t-shirt and shorts, my traditional hiking attire. One of the unfortunate habits that I carried over from trail running. It wasn't long before we were ready to get going. The sky had started to turn grey, indicating that the sun was making its way up to the horizon. At around 6 AM, we embarked on our legendary quest to hike 30 miles of trails and mountains in one day. At this point I thought it opportune to ask Viktor, how many times he had done this route before ? The reply was terse. "No", he said. I took this admission in stride. Ooh..! We're going on a little adventure. The trail was well maintained and we didn't have much difficulty following it. It was mostly uphill but the grade was easily manageable. It started getting brighter and we were able to see our first views of the formidable mountains. As the first rays of the sun fell on the mountains, I couldn't help but admire their beauty. Rich with life and greenery in the lower rungs, yet rugged and austere as you go higher up.

We were now treading at a brisk pace. This was helping in warming me up. I think a drop of sweat might even have formed on my furrow. The trail was reasonably well defined. As I settled down into a steady rhythm, I felt the tenseness of the morning beginning to dissipate. I started getting comfortable. In fact too comfortable. I even got cocky enough to think that hiking was getting boring. I needed a real challenge. As if reading my mind, Viktor started talking about bears. That these forests were bear country had not crossed my mind. He mentioned an incident of how he had encountered a big black bear and some cubs while hiking some mountains in this region. Fortunately, my senses soon got the better of me. I reminded myself that the day would be really long and that there would be some night hiking involved. We might even run into the occasional bear.

Thinking these thoughts, I caught glimpse of our first lake through a crack in the woods. Tatiana who had been reasonably quiet all this while, decided that she wanted to go off-trail. Her plan was to walk on a stream that lead to the lake and then meet us at the lake. I was amazed at her guts. This was my first indication that she was a very experienced and a courageous hiker. I would be very hesitant before trying to blaze my own trail. In my mind, I was analogous to a train and the trail was my track. Straying off the trail was akin to my train getting derailed. We came out into a clearing and I got a truly breathtaking view of the lake.

A view of the lake

This lake was just one amongst the many lakes that we would come across during the course of the day. Yet this one was the first and the most memorable. I still remember how sun shone golden on the cliffs, while the lake emanated an azure blue. Back on trail, Viktor proved to be very knowledgeable about local flora and fauna. He was practically a walking wilderness survival manual. He talked with great panache about the delicacy of mountain berries. He even got me to overcome my fear of eating berries growing on random bushes. We sampled black berries, blue-berries and salmon berries. I even learned some berry trivia. Salmon berries are called so because of their color which looks like the skin of salmon fishes. Salmon berries like mulberries and black berries happen to belong to class of berries called compound berries. These berries are composed of a number of smaller berries. All compound berries have the wonderful property of being non-poisonous. After talking about berries, Viktor moved onto mushrooms. He even picked a badass looking mushroom growing off a tree to make mushroom soup when he went home. I asked him how does one if a mushroom is poisonous. His reply was again terse and proved to me that he was crazy beyond doubt. He said "You eat and wait". He even pointed out the most poisonous plant in North America. The infamous "Hellebore", which at that sounded like "Hell Boar". A very apt name, I must say.

A salmon berry

Viktor was full of interesting anecdotes and trivia and the time passed quickly. The sun had climbed higher in the sky by now. Everything around us looked gorgeous. We came across a rocky ledge that overlooked a gigantic lake. Tatiana was in a joyous mood and insisted that we park on that ledge for lunch. While the view was splendid, it still was a precarious rock perched on a cliff. I was unsure of my footing and was initially very cautious. As picking lunch spots with a view go, we totally nailed it. Hungry from all the hiking so far, I devoured my sandwiches. The thought of conserving food for the rest of the day did not even once cross my mind.

Unsure of my footing at our lunch spot

By now we were fairly high up in the mountains. The snow covered peaks which had so far loomed in the distance were now much closer. Trekking on further we reached an alpine lake. I call it alpine because it had snow on its sides. Viktor decreed that we would stop here to refill our bottles. He drew his portable water filter and got pumping. I had two 1L water bottles on me. I had been sparing in my water consumption as it had been a pleasant hike so far. I had used up only one bottle. Viktor insisted that I fill it up and thank goodness I did. I sat there by the side of the lake with a supreme sense of calm while the sun warmed my shoulders. I think I might have even removed my shoes to waddle my feet in the icy water. I can't believe that I was so oblivious. Oblivious to the fact that this would be our last moment of peace on this hike.

We continued up the mountain, and we encountered more forest and lakes. Tatiana asked if she could go swimming in one of the lakes. I could make out that Viktor was a little concerned about our progress. He diplomatically answered that we could go swimming in jade lake if we made it in time. Both Tatiana and I were more than satisfied with this answer and I think we even picked up our pace. Little did we know jade lake was eons away. Soon, the trail abruptly ended. We had entered the bushwhacking phase of our journey. Bushwhacking basically means there exists no road or path. On your map you may think that tour destination is around the corner, but in reality there might be a cliff there. It needed a lot of creativity and improvization to find your way. All now depended on Viktor and his GPS device. There were little stacks of rocks left here and there. A sign that a humans had been there before.

We trampled through bushes and hedges, across boulder fields and even skirted a few lakes. It all seemed fun. My sense of adventure was back. Higher and higher we climbed. The trees thinned out and it all soon became rocks. We got spectacular views of the lakes we had seen before. I was nimble on the rocks. All my previous running had helped build up strong legs and solid aerobic breathing. I clambered from rock to rock. Thinking that if this was bushwhacking, I was really killing it. Until we came to this tall vertical rock wall. It had a lot of boulders in its base, but it looked steep at the top. Viktor motioned in the direction of the wall. I raised an eyebrow, hinting "Are you serious ?". Everything was being communicated in sign language now. Flushed with the confidence from my boulder hopping, I attacked this vertical wall. I climbed higher and higher. Focused on my goal of getting to the top in record time. Higher and higher. Until I reached a spot, where I had no handhold. I scouted around for another spot to climb up and made my first mistake. I made the mistake of looking down. Far below me was the solid ground I had been confidently striding on. Now, perched high upon the ledge, I felt nothing but fear. I cringed close to the rock. My sturdy legs were feeling weak. I couldn't even climb down, I was paralyzed on my spot. Then Viktor came along, asked me what's up. I told him that it's impossible to go further. He gave me a look that made me feel like a small insect. On he went grabbing grass roots and what not. He was over the final part and onto the top. I mustered up the courage and hauled myself up the final stretch. My confidence shattered and a lot more humbled.

Viktor bouldering up the slopes

Forward we went. Viktor in the lead and Tatiana and I in tow. Soon we came across this gigantic glacier field. To the reader a glacier field, might seem chilling cold. The truth is that I was in my t-shirt and shorts. The heavy hiking and the warm sun made the temperature rather pleasant. On seeing ice, I got really excited. I paid no heed to Viktor's warnings about glaciers collapsing into crevasses and hopped onto a rock in the middle of the glacier. I even got Viktor to take my picture(see below) standing in the middle of the snow field. I can't describe the beauty of the snow field. Barren in its beauty. I can fully understand how some men like the Lawrence of Arabia fall in love with the barren beauty of the desert. I stood there inhaling the crisp mountain air, appreciating the barrenness, ruggedness and magnitude of it all. We humans are so small in comparison. Civilizations and governments come and go, but the mountains remain. The proud and tall creations of nature's might.

Me examining the glacier

We carefully crossed this snowfield. I was somewhat careful while stepping on the ice. My vibram soled patagonia shoes had solid grip on dry rock but they were extremely slippery on ice. I gingerly crossed this snow field, nearly slipping once. More rock and another snow field greeted us. I swallowed hard when I saw it. It was steep at nearly a 45 degree angle. It plunged deep down into a cliff. I looked into the direction of Viktor to plead with him. But he paid no heed. He was already ahead of me, breaking out his trekking poles crossing the snow. I stood there transfixed on the spot. Soon Tatiana overtook me as well. I had no choice but to move on. This glacier was a little different from the previous one, it had a lot more dry snow. That crumbled under the foot. I had no choice. I took my first steps very carefully, digging my feet into the snow as deep as I could. Carefully step by step I crossed, the snow. I was nearly at the other side. I felt the wind whoosh past my ears, as I hurtled down the mountain.

The snow had given way under my feet and I was now speeding down the mountain. What did I think of ? I thought "What's happening?", "This can't be happening", "Just a bad dream. Come on snap off it now", "Is this how it is all supposed to end?". Yes, this was a near death scenario and it was happening to me. I don't know how much time transpired, but it felt like an eternity. I hit a rock and my fall stopped. Today, I was alive.

Part II is continued in the following blogpost Cliffs, Marmots and Urgency


blank_confusion said...

Where's the next part! Do write soon.

Anonymous said...

Dude you really know how to tell a story! Wonderful descriptions. I am hoping that from the fact that you are here to write this that you are ok, and not writing this from a hospital all covered in bandages :)

Kolor said...

@shreya: soon soon..!
@vijay: haha..! yes, I am fine. But I would nearly not have been.