Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I Like Huckleberries

I just went on my first actual overnight backpacking trip. It wasn't supposed to be the first; the one before it was supposed to be an overnight trip, but you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and backpackers.0 It wasn't the weather. The weather was perfect for the two days that we had planned out overnight backpacking trip to Gem Lake from Snoqualmie Pass. It was beautiful weather in fact, and the scenery was beautiful to match. We hiked five miles: from the trailhead up over a saddle point and down into a basin and along Snow Lake, then up over another saddle point to Gem Lake. There were seven of us all together: Mike, Josh, his sister Heidi and her fiance Robbie, Chris, Elizabeth, and I. We arrived at our campsite and set up our tents. The weather was so good that the bugs were out enjoying it along with us. This didn't suit us, and so after eating lunch, Mike, Chris, Elizabeth and I went into one of the tents to play cards.1 After we were done with the game, Mike and Chris left, and Elizabeth and I read Galatians.2 After we were done, Elizabeth went to her tent to lay down, and I did the same. Everyone was eager to get some rest, because we had timed the hike to coincide with the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, on a moonless night, and we were planning on staying up late into the night watching meteors. Here ends the portion of the trip that went as planned. Chris was not in his tent. This we discovered at about four o'clock in the afternoon. He was not to be found in the camp, nor around the camp, nor had anyone seen him since shortly after the card game: he had been unaccounted-for for two hours. We split up and searched the immediate area. We spoke with the occupants of the neighboring campsite, we called for him: nothing. Having verified that Chris had not simply stepped out to relieve himself, we re-grouped and formulated a plan: we would split up into groups of two and search for him until nightfall. If we did not find him by nightfall, we would send out for Search-and-Rescue. Mike and I searched to the south; Josh and Robbie searched to the east; Elizabeth stayed with Heidi at the camp.3 We re-grouped after the initial search. We established a system for communicating with our whistles. Mike and I headed around Gem Lake counter-clockwise (we were camped at the south end of the lake). We spoke with some more campers on the east side, and followed the trail around the lake, whistling periodically.4 I began to see recent footprints and scuff marks on the trail as we rounded the north-western side of the lake. We followed this trail up to a peak on the western side of the lake, where Mike spotted a blue beanie that he thought looked like it belonged to Chris. I looked through my pictures, and there was, indeed, a pair of shots that showed him wearing a blue beanie. (Mike's photos later verified this with more certainty). The beanie was near the top of a peak with a rather steep ledge on the lake-side, but the tracks lead down the hill toward the camp. (Or did they lead up the hill from the camp? We couldn't tell.) If Chris had come clockwise, this peak would have been early on his hike, and he may have proceeded around the lake to Wright Mountain (northeast of the lake), or possibly to Wildcat Lake (below Gem Lake and to the north). If he had come counter-clockwise, perhaps he had gotten lost or injured, headed off into the woods, or continued hiking past the campsite. In particular, Mike and I noticed that the trail is difficult to follow on the north side of the lake. We followed the trail down the hill towards the lake's outlet on the southwest corner of the lake, and continued whistling and following the trail. We checked the outlet stream as far as we could, and explored the surrounding landscape. About this time, we began to hear what sounded like whistles in response to ours. After confirming by walkie-talkie that the whistles were not Josh and Robbie, we began following them. The whistles lead us south, towards the western end of Snow Lake. After a while, they became intermittent, and finally, we lost them. At some point, Mike lost his walkie-talkie. We continued in that direction as far as we could, until the terrain and the fading daylight prevented our progress, and then headed back to camp. We arrived at camp a little after nine o-clock at night. Chris, for all we knew, had taken no food, no water, and what's more, he was late for dinner! Something was seriously wrong. Most of us were, at this point, pretty exhausted.5 We had just hiked five miles and four thousand feet with 40-pound packs on our backs, and then spend the afternoon scouring the countryside for any sign of Chris. We had worked up quite an appetite, and so we cooked up some dinner and formulated our next step. We did not expect that Search-and-Rescue would be able to send anyone until morning, but we decided to try and contact them that night so that they would be geared up and ready to go in the morning. It was decided that a pair of hikers would head down towards the trailhead until they could get cell phone reception, which we expected would not occur until they reached the second saddle point. It was therefore probable that whoever went would not make it back to camp that night. Josh and Robbie needed to stay with Heidi, and Mike, though he wanted to go, was exhausted. I seemed in any case to be the least worn-out of the guys, and so I volunteered to go. Elizabeth at this point absolutely refused *not* to go: she was fed up, necessary though it had been, with sitting still, and wanted to actually *do* something to help. Additionally, she was the one most trained to provide medical care should we encounter Chris on the trail, so the two of us, equipped with trekking poles, head lamps, and light packs with emergency supplies and blankets, headed off down the trail. As we crested the first saddle point over Snow Lake, Elizabeth suggested seeing if we were in range. We had two cell phones: mine, which has AT&T, and Josh's, which has Verizon. To our surprise, we got reception!7 Elizabeth dialed 911, and calmly identified herself and explained the situation to the operator. The operator instructed us to stay put where we were and wait to be called back while SAR was contacted. We waited, but didn't get any calls. We called back, and deduced that our reception was too weak for incoming calls. Meanwhile, we notified Josh's girlfriend Vanessa of our situation, and gave her a list of people to call to pass the word. We had to make it quick, because the phone was low on battery, and we needed the line to be available for SAR. As a result of that phone call, literally thousands of people were praying for Chris over the next two days. While we were waiting for SAR to coordinate, Elizabeth and I were able to watch the meteor shower. We were facing towards the wrong area of the sky, but even so, we saw one or two meteors a minute. At about 11:45 PM, SAR asked us to come down to the trailhead to help coordinate, so we hiked all the way down in the dark. Everything that was not illuminated by our headlamps was completely pitch black. I was in the lead, with Elizabeth behind. Every so often, I would miss a switchback in the trail, and she, with her wider-beamed light, would usually be the first to notice. It took us until about 2:30 AM to reach the trailhead. We passed two groups of three Search-and-Rescue hikers going up about 10 minutes from the bottom. When we got there, there was a trailer where the coordinator, a K-9 deputy, debriefed us. After our debrief, another, larger, trailer arrived, and we moved to that. We also got to meet his dog, Wyle. That dog is *highly* energetic: he's like a puppy, only he's *much* bigger and *much* more powerful, and is trained to take the bad guys down. We were told that we couldn't leave until morning, so when they were done with us at about 5:00 AM, we borrowed a couple of sleeping bags from one of the SAR volunteer coordinators, and climbed into the back of Mike's Subaru.8 Two hours later, at 7:00 AM, we were woken up by a helicopter. The search and rescue effort over the next two days was nothing short of amazing. There were over 250 people involved, most of them volunteers. There were 2 helicopters, mountaineering teams, and several teams of tracking dogs. After supplying the SAR coordinators with a picture of Chris from my camera, we were relayed by Elizabeth's siblings to her house, where we crashed. Chris was lost on Sunday afternoon. He was found just before noon on Tuesday. They helicoptered him in to the trailhead, and then took him directly to the hospital. Chris, as it turns out, had left the camp (alone! without telling anyone!) in order to take a quick trip around the lake. He had gone counter-clockwise, and when he reached the south end of the lake had somehow missed the trail to the campsite. He had kept going, thinking that the lake and the camp would be just around the next bend, then the next, and the next. At nightfall, he had seen a trail in the distance, and decided to head for that in the morning. He spent the night sheltered in a rock field, and then headed in the direction of the distant trail. It was farther than it had looked, and he in fact never found that trail, but he did hear the helicopter in the distance, and after one more night in the wild, decided to head in that direction and "in the direction of the mosquitoes". He eventually made his way to a trail, and followed it to an intersection with the trail that we had hiked on past Snow Lake. Shortly after finding the trail, he met another hiker, who "somehow" knew his name, and 30 seconds away was a SAR party. Anyway, that was my first backpacking trip, and if you've been paying attention, I didn't actually end up staying the night in the camp; I spent it in the back of a Subaru. My first successful overnight backpacking trip was this last weekend. Mike, Chris, Elizabeth, and I, along with Keisha climbed up to a campsite at the base of the glaciers on Mt. Shuksan, which is near Mt. Baker and the Canadian border. On this particular trip, no one was lost for days, but the weather was, unfortunately, quite foggy, and on the second day, quite wet as well. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hike. My calf muscles are still a bit sore, but my knees have stopped hurting. We saw mountain goats, and there were berries all over the place. There were wild blueberries in the forest, and above the tree line, there were fields of huckleberries (which, by the way, are quite delicious). Also, I didn't have my camera. If you want pictures, you'll have to get them from Mike or Keisha.
0 Come to think of it, do people in general know what it is that "they" actually "say" about the best laid plans of mice and men? I mean, we know that phrase of the poem (or a rough translation thereof), but do we really know what it says actually happens to the aforementioned plans? Wonder no longer, my curious friend. 1 We played hearts, and I lost. 2 Yes, the whole book. It was a letter: it was meant to be read in its entirety, although the translation from which I was reading was one which the translator had specifically intended for study, not oral reading, so it was a bit choppy. 3 Elizabeth, who would have preferred to be out searching, was none-too-happy with this arrangement, but we all knew that we needed to keep her, our "medical personnel " centrally located in case we needed to call for her, and someone needed to stay at the camp in case Chris made it back by himself. 4 My hiking whistle is so loud and shrill that both Mike and I had to cover our ears while I blew it in order to avoid pain. The first few times I did this, the whistle kept popping out of my mouth because I wasn't adequately gripping the whistle with my lips/teeth. 5 Except me, for some reason. I was fine. And the girls of course, who hadn't been doing much of the scouring. 6 His walkie-talkie was found the next day, amazingly, by a SAR volunteer, who stepped on it. 7 Guess which phone? I'll give you a hint: "Least dropped calls" requires that you be able to make a call in the first place. It was Josh's phone. Yay Verizon! 8Hey--I know what you're thinking: don't worry, we had a trekking pole in between us.