27 August 2009

Mount Princeton


Those who know me know I shall undertake no adventure save that which Murphy’s Law gone bad dominates. Way back in 2003, I decided I had to have a winter mountain ascent under my belt. And Murphy’s Law had a heyday!

I'm not sure why I chose Mount Princeton, but I deliberately chose January 18 because it was the one-year anniversary of the day my adopted son had run away. Instead of mourning the loss and abandonment I felt, I wanted the day to be something I could celebrate.

What I got that day was a heck of a different experience than I planned, but I think in the long run, my mission was accomplished. I don’t think of January 18 as the day my son ran away anymore. It’s the day Princeton educated me.

The north-facing portions of the trail (which actually is a closed four-wheel-drive road) were challenging. The snow was iced over on top from abundant daily sunshine and frigid nightly temperature drops. It was difficult for me to stay balanced on snowshoes at the uphill angle with a loaded backpack when hit by a sudden gust of about 40 to 50 mph. Learning how to side step facing down a steep bank of snow with snowshoes five times longer than normal shoes isn't exactly what I'd call fun. I tripped by stepping on my snowshoes a couple of times.

I move so slowly, I expected to be passed several times by more experienced hikers/snowshoers/climbers. But the whole day, there wasn’t another soul on the whole mountain.

On slick, hard ice in the middle of a long, steep coulior, another of those blasted wind gusts knocked me off my feet. I began sliding. I furiously dug my snowshoes into the ice and clawed with all my strength to keep myself from an unplanned glissade of about 1,000 feet. Fortunately, I was sliding slow enough that I was able to grab some bushes and a rock as I passed. I watched about thirty rocks and snowslabs tumble all the way down the mountain.

At that point, I was done hiking. Not just for the day. Not just for the winter. As I was hanging on with every ounce of energy I could muster, I decided no peak, no lake, no meadow was worth this. I said a silent prayer, then I said another one out loud. I knew there was no way I could get off this mountain without God’s help.

I prayed for calmness. I prayed for inspiration of what to do next. I prayed someone else would come along.

I squirmed trying to get a foothold, with snowshoes, onto some nearby rocks frozen into the icebed. A rock came loose and tumbled down the crevasse.

That gave me an idea. Well, actually, God gave me the idea. I pulled a hand-sized rock out of some brittle ice and used it to carve a handhold in stronger ice. Once my left hand had a firm grasp, I carved another hand hold about three feet back toward the exposed section of road that had lead me to this precarious position. I dug my snowshoe crampons into the ice again, then pulled myself over three feet and proceeded to carve another handhold three feet further. Three feet at a time, I carved, dug and pulled until I got back to solid talus slope. Which, in retrospect, isn’t the best kind of ground to try to find footing with snowshoes still attached. But it was better than an ice slide. I relocated quite a few rocks in the next hour, trying to scramble back up to the road so I could get back to my car.

When you’re that intent on surviving, nothing really goes through your head except what you have to do next. I remember reaching flat roadbed, getting down on my knees and praying out loud. I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually thought about anything other than holding on tight.

I snowshoed back down the mountain, grimacing with muscle aches each time I had to take the snowshoes off for a few steps. I was going to be sore the next day. I was so pleased I’d already positioned my car so all I had to do was drive it down the mountain.

When I first reached my car, I felt so relieved at having survived the hike that I listened to a few chapters of a book on CD while I devoured a slice of the now frozen pizza from the night before I’d planned to reheat once I got back down to Buena Vista. I was so relaxed!

Once I got everything packed away, I started the car and put it in gear to begin the gentle roll down onto the road. The curve back onto the road was a little tighter than I would have liked, but my toes didn’t hurt. I thought I could survive just a few more minutes of tense maneuvering.

Unfortunately, the road had iced up since I’d parked that morning, and my back wheels began sliding down the mountain faster than my front wheels were being driven. I threw the car into four low and tried to rock the car gently back up into my parking spot so I could re-angle it. The car now was positioned perpendicular on the road and pointing down a tree-lined but terrorizingly steep drop-off.

My adrenaline raced, but I said a prayer to stay calm and then got out to attempt to dig my way off the ice and throw dirt and gravel under the tires. After about an hour of trying to improve road conditions, I said yet another prayer and tried once again to rock the car out of the slanted position where it rested.

The back wheels, which I had blocked with huge rocks, began sliding downhill again. Now my car was overhanging the road on the right front end, and I could see no way possible to get the car off the mountain without just letting it roll forward to tumble through the trees.

I panicked. I cried. I prayed. I didn’t know what to do except put the car in reverse, pull the emergency brake into place and get out of the car with as little movement as possible.

Initially, I stressed about the roaming charges I’d acquire by using my cell phone to call for help. But only briefly. I fumbled with the phone; my hands were cold. Digging in the snow and frozen gravel had soaked even my leather gloves. The frigid wind had become relentless, and the shadows were growing very tall.

After a few minutes of searching, the phone finally found a signal, and I dialed 911.

I had a big lump in my stomach because I knew the wrecker would be one of the most expensive lessons I’ve ever learned. I kept trying to think about how much my car cost and how much my camera cost. The value of a novel I’d been writing and my journal, both also helplessly trapped in my forlorn car, was even higher than the material stuff I was worried about. Whatever the price, the rescue would be worth it.

When the wrecker driver and the county sheriff finally got my car back to the parking lot at the foot of the mountain, I wanted to lie on the ground and hug it. While the wrecker driver wrote out the bill and copied my credit card information, I thanked God for keeping me safe the whole day so I could live to tell about my experience. I thanked Him for keeping my car safe so I could drive home instead of pay a taxi and take plenty more pictures throughout the life of my camera.

During the previous year, I’d felt as though I had lost everyone who was important to me. I felt so alone.

On Mount Princeton, I learned to always make sure someone knows where I'm going and when I'm expecting to be home. I learned climbing a mountain alone in winter on the verge of depression probably isn't the smartest thing to do. Most importantly, I realized God really does love me, even though I am not perfect, and I am never alone. Mount Princeton taught me God is always with me.

1 comment :

Dusty words lying under carpets,
seldom heard, well must you keep your secrets
locked inside, hidden deep from view?
You can talk to me... (Stevie Nicks)

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