27 October 2009

Mount Silverheels, Part 2

See Part 1 here.

Sometimes you can do all the right stuff and still get into trouble. I tried to make wise decisions before I took on Silverheels. I told at least five people where I would be going. I told them when to expect me back. I took all the right equipment, even though it meant my pack was heavier than what I wanted to carry. I had an emergency shelter, extra fleece, rain poncho, knife, notepad and paper, enough food and water to get me through 24 hours, flashlight, extra batteries, lighter, snowshoes and first aid kit. I was prepared for a snowstorm or an unexpected and unplanned night in the mountains.

I went up a very circuitous route instead of the straightforward route. I think I added two miles onto my trek, but in retrospect, aside from not attaining the summit, I am glad I took the route I took. It was a good hike. I enjoyed the journey, and I got some terrific pictures. I saw parts of the mountain others most likely miss.

I was so discouraged when I decided I should turn back, I was near the point of tears. I didn't pay enough attention to where I was going. I noticed about a mile and a half down there were no footprints on the trail I was traversing.

I’d been following human tracks, and I thought I was going the right way. But suddenly the footprints were gone, and I didn't notice until it was too late.

I backtracked quite a bit trying to find familiar terrain. All uphill. I didn’t have anything left inside me to do this, and each step I took made me further from my car. I grimaced as I realized I probably was going to come out at the wrong trailhead, and I would be miles away from my car, which I would have to find in the dark. The oncoming storm at this point was actually beginning to threaten.

I knew I could spend a night in the mountains alone if I needed to, but I didn’t want to. I knew everyone I’d told of my destination would be extremely worried, and I didn’t want to do that to them. Search and rescue would cost more than I could afford. What if they pulled in helicopters??? We're talking thousands of dollars.

I had to get back to a road. Any road leading to civilization. I was on what looked like a very old and undeveloped road, so I decided to keep following it.

Eventually the road petered into a three-trail junction. None of my surroundings were familiar. I’d lost a lot of elevation, and I couldn’t see any high peaks to orient myself. I had to use my compass and the position of the sun, which was now totally engulfed in heavy nimbus clouds.

The trail numbers marking the junction were completely unfamiliar to me and not on my map. I thought if I called 911, at least they could tell me which way to head. Maybe someone would meet me at the trailhead and transport me back to my car. My fingers were crossed.

I dialed 911. The dispatcher took my name, my cell number and my location, then put me on hold to answer another incoming call that may have been a real emergency. My cell phone died.

I cried.

And I’m not trying to rhyme! I knew I had unintentionally started a search and rescue operation that might even make headlines. I was so paranoid, so devastated, so utterly helpless to do anything about it.

The sky was getting darker. The snow was coming down hard and fast. I could set up camp. I could start a fire. But something inside me urged me to keep going. I wrote notes and applied them to the trail markers. I built a wood cairn in the middle of the junction and stuck yet another note in it directing anyone who came by to check the trail markers.

I headed south, thinking that would eventually get me back to the highway, or the dirt road leading to my car, should I be so lucky.

About an hour later, I reached another trailmarker with yet another number I didn’t recognize. This was at the junction with a red dirt road. Quite stunning in appearance, the first 50 feet or so were entirely coated by a thick sheet of ice, frozen runoff engulfing the roadway. I would have to cross it to travel in the direction I thought would return me to civilization. I could go the other way, avoid the ice and get even further off target. So I traversed the tricky ice. It was not easy. I did not fall, but I had to move very cautiously and very slowly. With all the weight I was carrying, one false move, and I’d have done a face plant.

I think I walked another two miles down the red road before two tame dogs came running heartily toward me. I am so afraid of dogs, but I was so excited to see life forms! I let both dogs jump right up on me, and I welcomed them with open arms.

I could hear people voices in the distance calling to the dogs to return. My heart was doing somersaults. Oh, I was about to be rescued!!! I wanted to set my pack down and run! I knew I would need to remove the notes I’d left, just in case someone found them two or three days later and started a whole new search. I needed to call 911 to make sure they knew I’d been found.

When the dogs’ owners first saw me, they apologized for their dogs, and I simply stated, “I’m so glad to see your dogs. I’m lost.”

The couple said I was heading the right direction, but they warned I was still several miles from where I was trying to get. They offered to take me back to my car, which at the time they didn’t even know the location of, and I gladly, wholeheartedly, graciously, thankfully accepted.

When I called 911 from their cabin to report I had been found, the dispatcher said search and rescue had not been sent out yet because they didn’t know if I had found my way back to my vehicle, since they couldn’t get hold of me. I explained my phone had died while I was on hold, and I was unable to communicate in any other way until I reached my rescuers' cabin.

Imagine my surprise when upon reaching the trailhead, the female half of a husband/wife search and rescue team was studying the Silverheels map at the trailhead.

She asked if I was the lost hiker. Her husband was at the southeast trailhead just in case I came out that way. I told her I thought search and rescue hadn't been called. She said she'd heard it on the radio, and she and her husband got ready just in case, not wanting to waste precious hours in this kind of storm.

All three of my rescuers knew exactly where I’d taken a wrong turn. They said it happens all the time, and that seasoned mountaineers frequently make the same mistake. And oh, that fall on the ice at the end of the day? The part I wouldn't have told anyone? They witnessed it. Start to finish. Not only did I show them how lost someone can get, but I demonstrated my full klutz capabilities as well!

Nevertheless, I have learned my lesson. I lost the capability to make wise decisions when I got emotional. I need to stay sharp to think clearly. I’ve also learned that when I make bad choices, God further sharpens my mind by giving me the opportunity to think and act. He doesn't usually give me an easy way out on a silver platter. He allows me to work my way out of the bad places I get myself into.

I expected a medium-sized bill for making the canine-equipped search and rescue couple leave their warm, safe homes on a holiday to come out looking for me, especially when it turned out to be a false alarm, so to speak.

Instead, I was invited to help the couple train their dogs next time I'm in the area. I befriended four really cool people. And I learned to keep my cell phone warm if I expect it to work in cold weather.

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