As we headed down the summit, we would soon be presented with a whole new set of challenges...
What a great hike! Mother Nature conspired to cooperate and everyone was exhilarated. The weather was perfect and the views were stunning. This area rarely saw snowfall and if it did, it was never this much nor did it last this long. This hike had turned out to be a real treat for everyone.
It was soon time to make the return trip. The other group left the summit going back the way they came and we started our trek back down to the fire road as our hiking guide pointed out certain spots along the way. We took in the scenery and as I looked around a thought occurred to me that something didn’t feel right but, I quickly shrugged it off. We made our way gradually down the slope when the thought occurred to me again. This wasn’t the way we came up the trail. Where was the ski lift? We all seemed to think the same thing at the same time as we looked at each other. This is not the way we came up. How did we end up over here and where was “here”? We immediately stopped and took a look around to survey the area. Funny how things looked so similar when everything was covered in a blanket of white. We looked at our guide who seemed just as perplexed. A discussion ensued as we contemplated our next move. Our eyes scanned the landscape again. At this altitude cell phones were useless as there were no towers for a signal to bounce off of and no one had an actual compass (mental note) so we would have to rely on what we knew, our own keen sense of direction and familiarity with the area. After we debated for a few moments, we agreed we were northwest of the ski lift. Do we backtrack to the summit and start over or do we continue down the slope we were currently on, not knowing where we would end up in relation to the fire road? With no footprints from previous hikers on our current path, we would literally be going where no man had gone before. Going up a slippery slope was bad enough, but going down conjured up a whole new set of anxieties. How far off the path would this route take us and how long would it take to reach the fire road that would eventually lead us back to the trail-head? More importantly, would we have enough daylight? AND where was everyone? Not a human sound echoed anywhere and that was a very odd feeling. One thing we knew for sure- we had to head DOWN. There was no debate about that. We took a second look at the slope and we all agreed. Down was good. We took one final look, surveyed the area (looking for an alternative route) and checked for soft spots. This could get very interesting, but without many options, we felt this really was our best route. I thought to myself, this was going to take a while. We then carefully and cautiously planted our boots one step at a time. Slowly and gingerly, we made our way down the slope. I ventured closer to the plant growth that strained to sprout in the snow-pack. The ground had to be softer there. I watched my hiking partners traverse the slick ice ever so timidly, not wanting to slip. The sun was high in the sky and it seemed that everywhere I wanted to stake my poles for stability was met a spot that was hard and unyielding. My arms complained as I unknowingly tensed every muscle in anticipation of a fall. Conversation was kept to a bare minimum -no one wanted to break their concentration - as each of us focused on planting one foot in front of the other. “Slow, and steady, take small steps and don’t slip!” An occasional “whoa” or “easy” escaped our lips as one of us would start to slide. With eyes focused on finding the right spot to plant my feet and poles, I kept my eyes on the prize – the bottom of this hill, which didn’t seem to get close enough fast enough for me. I kept my pace short and quick, slid a few times but managed to stay upright. Amazingly, we all did. We let out a huge sigh of relief when we finally reach the bottom and glanced back at what we’d managed to accomplishment without incident. We mentally patted ourselves on the back – for a second. There was no time to celebrate…we hadn’t made it to the fire road yet.
We continued downward and came across a well-worn trail that lead back up. Our descent seemed to have hit an impasse. Now what? UP? Definitely not. We each scouted out the area, heading a few yards in different directions. Then out of nowhere, the sounds of humanity. People where nearby, but we still couldn’t see them. That's the funny thing about mountains. We could see the main road winding around the mountains in the distance, but we couldn’t tell if the voices were above or below us. We surveyed the area again and decided to try and make our way up what appeared to be a dry creek bed. Good choice. After just a few moments, we could confirm that the voices were coming from above our heads. That was enough of an incentive to kick our adrenaline into high gear. We climbed up and over, around and through rocks, leaves, dry brush and fallen tree branches as we kept watch though the trees and followed the voices. We occasionally caught a glimpse of a brightly colored piece of clothing through the trees and before we knew, it the voices were right above us. We clamored through the last stretch of the creek bed and ended up on the fire road right behind the voices we’d heard. A huge sigh of relief and smiles all around. We were back on familiar ground. The group we’d spotted on the fire road didn’t skip a beat, nor give us a second glance as we passed them, having no idea where we had just come from. We were headed back down to the trail-head but not before I landed on my backside in the soft and dirty slushy tracks left by a ranger’s vehicle. Good thing it was a soft landing.
I’ve learned a lot about my abilities when faced with uncertainty. 1 – don’t panic, 2 – follow your instincts, 3 – trust those instincts, 4 – carry a compass, 5 – never hike alone – be aware of your surroundings at all times and most importantly, never wander off the paths. Lesson learned.