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Wed, 28 Jan 2009
A Walk up Brunswick Mountain (continued)...
My right turn onto the HSCT turned me South, and the general direction for the trail indicated on the Cypress Provincial Park map was North-South. Given the blazes, the visible (albeit narrow) footpath on the 45 degree west facing slope, and the aluminum sign indicating the distance to the hut, I was confidently "on route" and felt oriented.
When hiking on blazed paths, the traveler can be in either of two discrete states: on route, or off route. On well trodden paths, staying on route is generally easy. The only hazard is being led down the garden path. That is to say, following the obvious road when the true path veers off on a less traveled route, possibly to avoid some upcoming obstruction on the well established route.
In winter, route finding can be somewhat more problematic as snow will obscure the footpath rut, and sometimes even cover the blazes. Still, if the route is well traveled, foot, snowshoe, or ski prints will be evidence in the snow. Lacking that basic clue, the hard packing of snow on route, versus the deep powder off route, is an instant tip-off to a wrong turn. More often than I care to remember I've wandered off a path in the Adirondacks or Whites, and suddenly plummeted armpit deep in loose powder. "Nope, that's not the way."
I suspect that, in winter, the Howe Sound Crest Trail might have a similar depth of snow, and similar density gradient route finding characteristics. In July, however, most of it was hard bare soil, tree roots, rocks, and gravel, both on and off trail. The trail rut was narrow but initially discernible to my hunter-gatherer brain and I began following the rut to the south. As the trail curved around the cone of Brunswick, sections quickly became less distinct as the terrain became more rugged with the prevailing slope peaking near 60 degrees. The blazes were widely spaced and it wasn't long before I found myself wondering if I really was on the trail. Eventually a blaze would appear and temporarily my on-route sense would return, only to fade again over the next hundred paces.
Because of the narrow, rugged trail across the steep fall-line, and the constant need to pause, looking forward and back for the assurance of a blaze, my progress was not much more than 1 MPH, relatively slow for a trail that wasn't doing any significant climbing. Seeing the low angle of the sun, I knew that my decision to forgo the summit and seek shelter was the right choice. I expected that I would reach the Magnesia Meadows shelter just around sunset.
Then I reached the first patch of snow.
Maybe it was a patch about the size of car tire. Not really a big deal. Smiling, thinking about what that trail must have been like in January, I carefully stepped over the patch. Then, in a few more minutes of walking I encountered another patch. This one a little bigger. Now I couldn't quite step entirely over it. My heel caught a little of the ice and there was an ever so tiny slip as I placed my weight onto the foot. Nothing really a millimeter slip but enough to start to erode my confidence in my ability to walk safely on the trail. It's an essential thing for a person to feel their feet firmly planted on the ground. Slippery foot sports like skiing and ice skating as exceptions proving the rule, I think that, as a species, our sense of well being is very much tied up with foot traction. A friend of mine who is an expert in Qigong, a traditional Chinese art involving methods of accumulating, circulating, and working with Qi or energy within the body, has told me that we draw our energy through the soles of our feet.
I believe it. When I stepped on that first sliver of snow I felt my Qi level drop significantly. I wasn't rattled. That's to strong a term. It was just a vague feeling that I had made a mistake.
At the next snow patch, an even bigger one, stepping over was not an option. I should have forced myself to walk through it, but my reasoning at the time seemed flawless. I remembered that little slip earlier. The slop was definitely steep. I didn't want to fall. I didn't want to put on crampons for such a tiny patch of snow. Why not just go around?
So I went around. This wasn't as easy as you might think. Even though the patch was maybe no bigger than a sheet of plywood, one footstep off a narrow trail on a steep slope puts you directly on the steep slope. Steep, gravel covered slopes are not walkable. I had to carefully crab shuffle down to some brush and trees a few feet below the trail and make my way, tree to bush to rock to tree, under the snow. The whole business was awkward and undignified. Worse yet, it took a good bit of time to do. When I made it back to the trail proper, I had spent 5 minutes to go maybe 10 feet.
Sure enough, after walking another hundred yards there was another patch of snow, bigger yet. Again I skirted the patch by scrambling along the brush line. Again I wasted 5 minutes.
The patches repeated with annoying frequency and given my fatigue at the end of the hard climb, my state of mind began to spiral into a moody funk. The hike had stopped being fun. I wanted to be in camp, eating dinner, sipping scotch.
There was another factor influencing my bad mood, now obvious, that I did not consider at the time: I was at 5000 feet of altitude. That morning, I had been at sea level. Obviously I hadn't acclimated to the altitude yet. Fortunately I had no acute symptoms of mountain sickness, no headache, no nausea, etc..., but I do now believe the altitude did affect my judgment, at least to some small degree.
The issue of my sound judgment soon became critical. After encountering and crossing a small, snow filled gully actually a small tributary to Magnesia creek and then skirting some more annoying snow patches, the trail led to what seemed, at first, to be another snow patch. Maybe it was a little thicker than the others, a foot or two deep, but it wasn't particularly wide, maybe ten or twelve feet. But when I turned to the right to look down the slope to see how I'd skirt this one, my heart was suddenly in my mouth: the bottom of this snow patch reached Howe Sound, over 5000 feet below. I was looking at what appeared to be an avalanche scar down the side of the mountain. There would be no scrambling under this "patch".
I had heard climbers say "the exposure was dizzying". Now I knew what they meant. As I looked down at the yawning, snow and ice covered mile long ski slope where roots and rocks and brush and trees should have been but weren't, I became literally dizzy. Looking up the slope was no better. Above me, the slope steepened till it ended at bare, black granite a sheer rock wall up another 300 feet or so, probably not far from the summit. Although I still stood in a protected spot, I couldn't help but back up a few steps away from that slope and blink a few times to clear my head.
It's actually not uncommon in mountain hikes, especially in winter, to encounter something apparently impassible. My winter hiking buddy Doug and I have a mind-organizing tautology we see some serious obstacle. Whoever sees it first says to the other: "We can either find a way forward, go back, or move left, or right, but we cannot camp here."
I decided to go forward.
I knew the theory of traveling on snow slopes. As I studied it, it really didn't seem all that terrible. Here's where my oxygen starved brain probably failed me a bit. It wasn't much more than a ski slope, I thought. I had been on ski slopes. Not mile high ones, but I had been on short slopes that were even steeper than this one. Of course, I was wearing skis and was actually trying to slide down the slope. Here, sliding down a mile to the cold sea didn't seem like such a good plan. The idea was not to slide, and should I accidentally slide, I needed to know how to stop myself.
I did know how to stop at least in theory. I had studied the You Tube video on self arrest with an ice ax. I had an ice ax. I was good to go. Wasn't I?
Doug and I have another saying that we use to justify ourselves when our thinking gets dangerously wacky like this. We say: "The best way to develop good judgment is through experience. And the best way to get experience is to have bad judgment." This is sort of a corollary to "whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger."
Anyway, I won't detail self arrest technique. Watch it on You Tube if you're interested. Suffice to say, it involves holding the ax a certain way so that you can jam the pick into the slope in an attempt to stop yourself from sliding. With this in mind, I retrieved my ax from my pack, held it in that certain way, took a deep breath, and set foot on the snow my first real footstep onto snow that day.
Suddenly I was sliding down the snow slope, picking up speed. I actually remember thinking: "so this is what it feels like to be sliding uncontrollably down a snow slope. That's interesting. I suppose I'd better try that self arrest technique." So I did, and it stopped me.
In thinking it over later, I do remember feeling calm about it when it was initially happening. That calm broke the instant I stopped sliding. Now I was hanging onto the icy flank of a mountain, with nothing under my feet for a mile. Yikes!
You might recall me mentioning that this snow slope wasn't particularly wide at the point where the trail crossed it. Maybe it was 12 feet wide. In spots, some brush spanned a good ways over the gap. As I nervously looked around from my prone self-arrest position, I almost cried in thankfulness as I saw the most gloriously sturdy looking tree branch dangling right next to me. Oh so carefully, I shifted my weight to free a hand from my ax. It took a while to loosen my white knuckle death grip, but when I did, I shot my and over to the tree branch and hauled myself out of danger. When my heart stopped pounding and breathing returned to normal I took stock of my situation. Although I was completely uninjured, there was one problem: I didn't know how far down the slope I had slid. The mottled, old snow showed no obvious track from my path. From where I was, I couldn't see any trail above, nor any blazes. Obviously the trail was above me, but it wasn't clear what the best way to get there would be.
Skirting up the edge of the snow slope, although likely to lead me to the trail crossing, didn't seem all that safe or practical at the time. Instead, I decided to bushwhack diagonally up the wooded slope to my right, thinking that this would eventually cross the trail too. Moving diagonally up the slope, off trail, turned out to be very difficult. I hadn't made it 100 feet when I encountered a boulder as big as a city bus and had to traverse horizontally till I found a way around. There was thick brush, tree roots, gravel piles and tangles of branches to battle through. Another hundred feet another ten minutes. The sun was setting.
Forward, back, left, right, but I can't camp here. I went on like this for a while. In retrospect, I realize how discombobulated my thinking had become. I was struggling almost mindlessly, moving generally upward, but I had totally lost a sense of where I was. I didn't think I had crossed the trail yet. Later I would discover that my slide had been very short and in my bushwhack I had crossed the trail almost immediately. I was now above the trail, climbing further upward, without enough oxygen in my blood to allow my brain to realize my mistake.
I encountered another snow slope, not quite as dizzying as the previous, but still formidable. This time I was determined not to slip and put on my crampons. With the focus and determination of a tight rope walker feeling an impending attack of diarrhea, I spiked my way across. It took forever. Then, reaching the end, just two steps off the snow, I caught a crampon point on a root and fell onto the gravel and underbrush, barking a shin bad enough that blood ran freely down my leg. This was definitely not fun. Off come the crampons. More struggling through the brush and boulders. Another slope, on go the crampons, then off again before I trip on another root. Up, to the right, and further up. A patch of snow skirt around it. More scrambling.
Surely I should have found the trail by now. Which way am I going? North! How can I be going North? Fire up the GPS. It reveals that I am going north now because I've wrapped around the cone of Brunswick. I see that from the topo maps I had downloaded. But I didn't have a good trail map. There were no waypoints or other trail indicators in the GPS. I hadn't the slightest idea where the trail was, or more importantly, where that shelter was that I was planning to camp at.
I find a brush free flat spot barely big enough to sit on just above a tree. A gloomy light of dusk filters in through the foliage. This may be my bivouac, I think. I may need to sleep the night sitting above the trunk of this tree. If I can't think of a better plan, I'll just sit here till the morning.
I fire up the GPS again, spread out the crude map from the Park web site, and gather my wits. Maybe tomorrow, with some rest, I would be able to effectively search for the trail, but not now in the quickly advancing darkness. I need a place to sleep. This tree trunk would work, but I really should be able to find something better. I study the contour lines and realize that I'm very close to the saddle between Brunswick and Harvey. I think, isn't there some Calculus theorem that guarantees there has to be a flat spot on that saddle? It's less than a quarter mile. I know the direction. I can mark this tree, then move to the saddle, tracking my progress on the GPS. If there's nothing up there, I'll come back here.
The possible flaws in this plan were numerous, but it was the best I could come up with. I found, however, that moving with a single, desperate purpose rather that flailing in panic made a big improvement in my progress. It was quite dark, but still not opaque when the GPS told me I had reached the topographic saddle. I could find nothing as flat as Calculus might predict the terrain in the saddle seemed even more uneven. It was a narrow, rock ridge between the peaks; it wasn't any sort of plateau. Hundred meter contour lines hide a lot. Fortunately, I did blunder into a small patch of alpine meadow, maybe 20 by 20 feet, with a tent-sized flat area above a few big trees that formed a comforting barrier to the sheer drop off below. A campsite, at last!
With a somber mood I went about the routine of making camp. The sun had set an hour ago; the only remaining trace of the day was a tint of indigo over the black horizon to the west. With deliberateness, I tied my pack to a tree, then dug through the pockets to find my headlamp. Let there be light. The weak glow from the LEDs was no match for the moonless mountain night, but it did serve well for seeing my hands as I assembled my gear. I unpacked the sack that contained my tent and unfastened the tent poles from the side straps. I snapped together the poles and set them down. I pulled the body of the tent from the sack, and set down the sack still containing the stakes and fly. Poles were easily threaded through the screen-mesh tent body; now I had a structure. I reached down for the sack containing the tent's rain fly, the part that makes a tent into a windproof, rainproof, life saving shelter and discovered the sack was not there.
I looked around. The tent sack was nowhere to be seen. I walked around. No stuff sack. This wasn't a very big spot. There was really no place the sack could be hiding. I had set it down not 60 seconds earlier right there. Where could it have gone? Slowly the only possibility dawned on me. The sack had either rolled down the slight slope and over the edge of the clearing, or I had unknowingly kicked it. Either way, it must have fallen off. I checked the perimeter of the area, shining my impotent headlamp into the impenetrable darkness of the rugged slopes surrounding me. I couldn't see anything.
Fortunately, the weather was quite mild. Maybe it was 60 degrees. There was no wind. No clouds. No rain in the forecast. Shelter was not a critical necessity this night. Still, the loss of my tent fly hit me hard. It was a mistake that in other circumstances could have been life threatening. Thus rattled, in a state of shock, I sat near my pack and began mindlessly cooking dinner. Pasta Primavera. A cup of tea. A granola bar. Normally a hot meal is sovereign for a foul trail mood, but I was too far gone. Numb to everything outside and swimming in my fractured, oxygen-poor thoughts, I chewed and swallowed without tasting.
Finished with dinner, I bagged and hung my remaining food, then moved into my quasi-tent, crawled into my sleeping bag, and tried to relax. When I turned off my headlamp the darkness enveloped me. The moon wouldn't rise for another 4 hours. I lay on a small rocky clearing, a mile above Howe Sound, eyes wide, seeing nothing but black, ears hearing only silence. I was seriously off trail in very difficult terrain. I had GPS and a compass, so I could head back the way I came without doubt, but my stomach clenched at the thought of crossing that incredibly exposed snow slope a second time.