I am violently pried from my zero degree sleeping bag at the crack of dawn.
The culprit is a gust of wind strong enough to blow the blockaded door of the storm shelter open, and along with it, bring several shovel-fulls of driving snow into my quickly devolving reality [What may look easy one minute could become extremely difficult 20 minutes later.].
The last thing I want is to get out of my down cocoon, grasping for another moment of sleep or comfort. Still, I leap up to shut the door and notice it is quite cold – 14 degrees, to be exact [Always dress for the occasion.].
I had made note of the deteriorating conditions outside throughout the night, not having really slept at all due to the mice crawling all over and finally sleeping on top of me. I had fought them off for several hours but succumbed in exhausted defeat. After all, at 13,000′ in elevation, I’m the warmest thing around for many, many miles [Sometimes you have to sleep with rats – but you don’t have to let them get in your head.]…
As I throw the door shut, I notice I can barely make out the trail I came up the afternoon before as it rapidly fills with snow in the total white-out before me … I quickly estimate having maybe 45 minutes before it disappears completely, as it’s snowing (sideways) at 2″ per hour [Things change quickly – one must adapt quickly as well.]…
It wasn’t supposed to be like this… the 5 mile hike in was under beautiful, cloudless blue skies and the weather forecast only called for 1-2″ of snow overnight at the summit of the Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005′), the mountain I had expected to climb that morning, via the relatively treacherous (even in the best of conditions) Halo Ridge Route [Don’t always believe the forecast.]. What better way to conquer my first winter solo 14’er?
I quickly decide that, not only is that NOT going to happen today [‘Success’ can quickly become ‘survival’.], if I don’t get down 2,500′ to tree line, the exposed 2 1/2 miles and 32 switchbacks I navigated on the way up will be indecipherable in the ongoing blizzard and I will risk stepping off a 2,000′ cliff if I happen to miss any of the 16 right turns by more than 2-3 feet on the way down [Sometimes turning back is the best option – but going back isn’t always as clear a path as you might think.]…
It doesn’t help that I packed so light for the summit attempt that I didn’t bring a map [Planning to barely squeak by can get ugly with minor variations.]. I expected to rely on the GPS and topo maps downloaded to my phone but the 14 degree temps froze the phone completely, rendering it useless (solid work, Apple!) [Preparing Plan B for critical systems is prudent.]… High stakes backpacking, for sure! [Having the minimum of resources can leave you exposed.]
All of this is coming into perspective while I quickly pack my things for the emergency descent. My initial thought is, “I’m not making it out of this alive.”
I’ve had a few close calls in my life but have somehow managed to escape the Reaper. Remembering this gives me hope, which stills the panic and activates Heightened Action Mode [A few deep breaths clear away the panic and bring you back to problem solving mode.].
I know what I have to do: zip up my jacket, strap on my pack and get the hell out ASAP. I figure, as long as I can see SOME bit of trail, I can put one foot in front of the other and get myself off that mountain.
I quickly learn this means with about 5 feet of visibility, I can just make out the trail leaving the next switchback and, if need be, can cut the turn if I lose sight and drop right into the next straightaway [You don’t need to see far to find your way.].
This realization not only brings overwhelming joy, it gives me but one focus: see the next return [Avoid cliffs at all cost.].And every time I do, I cheer out loud! One after another, until I begin to make out the heavenly shape of trees, which I know signals a (relatively) snow protected trail back to my truck.
That last 2 1/2 miles is one of the most awesome hikes of my life: the forest is incredibly beautiful and amazingly silent in the foot of fresh snow that’s fallen over the few short hours and I seem to skip along above it, effortlessly, knowing I am going to live to climb Holy Cross another day [It feels really good to get back home.].
Epilogue: I failed to summit attempt number two the following season, as well (this time due to freezing rain)! Someday… [Honest planning and an honest inventory of available skills makes for the best start and positions for success.]