Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Most Dangerous Day of the Trail....

June 27: The highest of the High Sierra passes were well behind us, but as Fidget and I were quickly learning, it was the river crossings that we should have been worried about all along.

I didn't sleep well overnight. A sense of dread washed over me, and lingered. I worried about crossing Bear Creek in the morning. Would the water level have fallen to a safer (and saner) level? Nightmares of drowning plagued me. Even worse, my guidebook showed four more dangerous river crossings further up the trail. In all, we'd have to deal with five potentially deadly stream crossings before the sun had set. It was enough to make you throw up thinking about it.

But it was Bear Creek that worried me that most. I'd heard horror stores about Bear Creek. The other so-called 'dangerous' creek crossings I'd never heard of. Maybe they are dangerous, but in my head, Bear Creek was the one to be feared the most, and it filled me with a sense of dread.

At sunrise, Fidget and I woke and walked over to examine the river. It seemed to have gone down a little--perhaps an inch, maybe two. Nothing that would make any difference at all in terms of safety, though. The river looked positively deadly. My sense of dread increased another notch. I hoped I wouldn't die this day. It was a morbid thought to think, but it seemed like a distinct possibility. Not likely, perhaps--I could probably swim to shore if I started getting carried away, but the possibility seemed all too real. Crossing this river could be a deadly decision.

Fidget turned to me and said, matter of fact, "If I die crossing this river, I want to you to tell everyone that my last wish is that they build a bridge here." I laughed. Partly because I thought it was funny, but partly out of nervousness. I didn't like this crossing at all, and thoughts of morality were very much in my own mind as well.

We ate breakfast, mostly in silence, hoping it wasn't going to be my last meal, then packed up camp. Fidget decided to go upstream looking for this mythical safe place of passage Yogi described. I looked around for a stout stick to help me keep my balance during the crossing, looking downstream. I hadn't searched for a safe place to cross downstream very thoroughly. I only went down about five minutes the evening before. Considering that our lives were in the balance, it seemed like it would be worth the effort to search downstream more thoroughly. I'd search downstream for a half hour if I had to, but I at least had to make the effort for a safer place to cross. My life was worth it!

And about ten minutes downstream, I found a possible place to cross. The river forked into three branches. The first two branches looked positively easy to cross. The third branch was further away and contained the bulk of the water, but I couldn't see it very well from the shore where I stood. It might be crossable. At the very least, a good portion of the river (and it's 'enthusiasm' as Fidget diplomatically described it) had been channeled into two other smaller channels. It was definitely worth a shot, and the best place I'd seen so far to cross. I was cautiously optimistic that I found a safe place (relatively speaking) to cross!

I went back up to the trail. Fidget hadn't returned from her scouting upriver, so I sat down and waited. When she arrived, I tried to keep up a poker face about my discover and asked her, "So did you find anywhere to cross?"

She shook her head, clearly disappointed. She described a log that seemed to have potential, and I knew exactly what one she was talking about, but it was in water so deep, so fast, and was partially submerged. The narrow canyon above the trail seemed to funnel the water into a faster, stronger, and far more dangerous current than where the trail crossed. The log might be crossed, but one slip would be instant death. Given the water was running over the log, I didn't think it could be crossed.

Then she asked me if I found anything, and I smiled. "Yes!" I jumped up explaining what I had found downstream. I told her that I couldn't be certain that the third channel of water would be easy to cross, but that the first two definitely were easy, and it certainly pulled out a lot of water from that third channel. And it looked a hell of a lot better than anything else we had seen.

Fidget was very happy about this news, and we grabbed our packs and headed downstream to my discovery. Fidget loved what she saw, and tromped into the first channel without any hesitation. I followed with the stick I had found earlier. We both stood on the land between the second and third channels, finally getting a good look at the last channel, and it looked positively wonderful. The water was fast, but most of it was pretty shallow. Maybe a little bit near the other side of the river it got a bit deep, but compared to everywhere else we had found, this looked a hundred times better. Fidget, fearless, stepped out into the water.

I watched, and started waterproofing my camera and other important documents. Those first two channels of water were so easy, I didn't worry about it. This one was a bit sketchier, however, and I wanted to take the additional precautions.

Fidget made it across fine, and I followed suit also getting across without any trouble. And we felt an enormous sense of relief to finally have Bear Creek behind us. I was positively giddy about that fact. We still had four more "dangerous" water crossings in our future that day, but if we could get past this one, I thought, the others should be a cinch!

We hiked for a few hours. I pulled ahead. There wasn't much reason we had to hike together at this time. In the snow where the trail is easy to lose or at a dangerous river crossing, I'd wait. Until then, we hiked at our own pace.

At the turnoff for VVR (Vermilion Valley Resort, but hikers call it VVR for short), I found Tom camped out. Tom gave me the ride from the Kearsarge Pass trailhead into Independence, and I was surprised to find him out on the trail here. He was waiting to meet up with Evan and the two Israeli girls, so I told them about the last time I had seen them (Golden Staircase) and when (a couple of days ago). They probably weren't far behind, but I doubted they'd make to this point that day. Maybe tomorrow?

Fidget caught up soon and told him about Evan breaking his ice axe.

Tom exclaimed, "Evan broke my ice axe?!"

I laughed. "Yes, he did. I didn't realize that the ice axe was actually yours, though! Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but yes, your ice axe is broken." The head had broken off of it somewhere during their crossing of Mather Pass.

Tom gave Fidget and I both a Cliff Bar and Pro Bar, which I happily accepted to add to my meager food supplies. My food was running especially low given the food bag I had lost. He also offered us a can of sloppy joe mix he had, but I didn't have a can opener to open it and declined. Fidget did have a can opener, however, and accepted it. He also offered to take the trash we had to lighten our loads. This was awesome!
(And thanks, Tom, if you ever read this blog!)

A short ways past time was the second 'dangerous' river crossing of the day: The North Fork of Mono Creek. A tree had fallen across the river, which wasn't one we could cross over easily, but it slowed down the river water and Fidget and I crossed through the water fine. It wasn't even particularly deep, coming up about halfway between our knees and waist.

"If the rest of these 'dangerous' river crossings are like this," I told Fidget, "We're home free!"

The next dangerous river crossing was a few more miles up the trail, recrossing the same North Fork of Mono Creek. This crossing looked a heck of a lot worse, however. It was crashing down a steep canyon, and the water here was a lot faster, and a lot deeper. Neither Fidget nor I liked the looks of it, and we started heading upstream to look for a better place to cross. We weren't finding much, however. Fidget turned back to start looking downstream, but I scrambled upstream to keep looking. If my life depends on it, I thought, it's worth the effort.

I followed the river upstream for more than a half hour but came up with nothing promising. Back at the trail, I found Fidget who said the river forked into two smaller streams a little downriver and looked okay. Heartened, I followed the stream down to see for myself. I found where she talked about, and indeed, it was a better place to cross than anything else I had seen to date, but looking at the terrain, I thought searching even a little more downstream might be prudent, so I kept going.

The river lost its momentum in Pocket Meadow, a small flat area filled with twisted logs and debris, and realized that there was actually enough that I could cross on the logs without even getting my feet wet. The trail went right along the edge of the meadow, so I followed it back up to Fidget and told her I found an even better place to cross than the one she did. I brought her down to Pocket Meadow, proud of my discovery.

"Look! We can cross without even getting our feet wet!"

Before we crossed, I took a good, hard look at my topo map. Dangerous river crossing #4 for the day was only 0.2 miles after this one. The topo map showed two creeks, merging here at Pocket Meadow, but the trail went above the meadow and crossed each creek one at a time. Crossing here at the meadow was positively easy, and it looked like we could scramble up a steep slope back to the trail.... after it already crossed dangerous river crossing #4. If my topo map was right, I thought, we could actually get past two dangerous river crossings without even getting our feet wet!

I explained my idea to Fidget, who seemed to approve of it. Fidget wrote a note out on a piece of scrap paper suggesting to hikers behind us to cross there at the meadow and follow it upstream until the trail it reached again. Save them the effort of spending the better part of an hour scouting for a safe place to cross like we did.

We crossed the rivers at Pocket Meadow. I made a special effort near the end of using logs to cross ankle deep water only so I could brag later that I crossed two dangerous water crossings without even getting my feet wet. Fidget let her feet get wet, though.

The rock scramble up the slope was sketchy, but nowhere near as sketchy as where the trail crosses the river normally. We pulled ourselves over one last hump and saw two hikers ahead of us. I couldn't see the trail under their feet, but obviously, they were standing on the trail. We made it! We came over the hump, and I threw my arms in the air, "WHOO-WHO! We made it!"

I can't imagine what these two men must have thought of seeing us, coming out of the bushes seemingly out of nowhere, scraggly and dirty. Monsters? Bears? Savages? But they recovered quickly, and asked where we had come from. They were stuck at our dangerous water crossing #4--the so-called "waterfall crossing" because the trail crosses the creek at a waterfall. (As we heard from another hiker, as long as you don't fall off the ledge, you'll be fine.) The waterfall crossing stopped these two southbound hikers in their tracks. They were discussing setting up camp early and trying in the morning when the water level would likely be lower.

So we told them how we got around the two dangerous water crossings, which seemed to reinvigorate them, and they eventually crashed into the bushes to try to retrace our steps backwards.

At the top of the mountain, the creek flows through a meadow, slowly and meandering. This was the fifth (and last) so-called dangerous water crossing of the day, and it turned out not to be a big deal at all. The water was deep--waist deep--but it flowed so slowly that there was nothing at all dangerous about it.

We set up camp on the far side of the last dangerous water crossings, happy to have made it through the day alive and in one piece. We hadn't seen almost any snow for the entire day either, which was a nice break from the snow slogging of previous days. We camped as close to Silver Pass as we could without getting above snow level to set ourselves up for an early morning climb over the pass before the snow warmed up.

At this point, my shoes were starting to show some serious wear and tear from the snow and water, so I spent much of the evening sewing together a hole in one of my shoes. The needles weren't really strong enough for this sort of work, but it was all I had so I made do, a couple of times sticking myself with the needle inadvertently.

Damn, these mountains are tough, and they seemed to have no end......


veganf said...

So is there a ban against bridges?? Or at least a couple of cables to attach oneself to so you don't get swept away? Or is it a financial issue, or accessibility for repairs problem? They should have had you lead the way when building the trail, LOL, you found all the "easy" spots.

David Baril Jr. said...

I was wondering the same thing! Where are all the bridges?

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

That Spring thaw is killer! But on the positive side, unlike the Southern California segment, you don't have to worry about running out of water sources.

Good for Fidget. She helped you regain your positive karma by helping those other hikers.

Hike On!
~Twinville Trekkers