Shift Part Two

Once Ned had announced Shepherd’s Pass to be too dangerous and that he had phoned Search and Rescue, another shift occured, I am sure for each of us in the group. For me, it was almost a relief, but more of a switch from managing one crisis to another. Immediately I thought about getting off that pass and down to tree line where we could take refuge and wait for our rescue. It was also a disappointment to think that I would not be hiking on, that I would not be making it over Forester Pass that week, and possibly not at all. I even started formulating a strategy to join Ned’s next class, in order to continue “through”. However, in those moments in that freezing wind, the only thing that really mattered was getting into a safe, warm place. This was Ned digging a path in the traverse at Shepherd’s Pass:

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And our group trying to keep warm:

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We hiked back off the pass and down slope a few miles to Tyndall Creek where we had to cross the creek, again, which by the end of that day was truly the last thing we all wanted to do, but the only hope of getting a dry, snow free place to camp was across the creek in the trees. Once we arrived there, freezing cold and exhausted (especially Ned from carving that path for us on the pass) we all focused our efforts on getting camp set up, getting dry, warm and eating a hot meal. We hunkered down, and in the process not only did we find that about 5 other hikers were also camping there, but as the night wore on, there were more arriving. I knew I had to super ration my food, as we did not know when the helicopter would be able to fly in due to the wind storms. We later found out that there was a state wide Amber Alert issued in response to the winds! I made myself a hot meal that consisted of miso soup with a fraction of my instant potatoe flakes, with some dehydrated broccoli and I added some coconut oil, salt and pepper, and threw in the ramaining veggie protein I had left. It was actually a phenominal meal, I have to say, and it warmed me up. I put on all the clothing I had, and cuddled up in my sleeping bag. Prince, in the next tent over, busted out his Ukelele (Ingrid) and began to play.

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It was such the bittersweet sentiment, being there, feeling trapped, vulneralble, fending off cold, rationing food, and not knowing really, what was going to happpen to us? His playing  reminded me of that last scene in the movie Titanic, where the ship is sinking  and those three musicians stay out on the deck playing sorrowful yet beautiful music as the passengers get onto the rescue boats. I appreciated Prince’s music so very much that night, as it gave the feeling of community, positivity, and it lightened the mood. It made me feel optimistic. That night, it got down to 16 degrees and believe it or not, I slept incredibly well. Full moon setting in the morning:

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In the morning, Ned rose early and made more phone calls to SAR. By 7:00am, he had spoken with Sequoia National Park Forest Service, and determined that the wind event was ending, and that the helicopter could conceivable fly in sometime between 12pm and 2pm that day. However, they could not flly any hikers out unless they were injured or had a medical condition which prevented them from hiking themselves out. The resolution was that they were offering to provide us with a government issued food drop, enough for 10 hikers for 2 days, so that we could all continue our hike and get out at the originally intended trail, at Kearsarge. So, that was the answer, we would be hiking over Forester after all. Yay!! I could not hide my excitement, I had really looked forward to facing this challenge, and what this also meant, was that my sorrowful projection of having to “leave” the Sierra’s for the time being, was no longer valid. This meant that it was going to be okay to continue. I suddenly realized that, these things happen. Weather in the mountains is unpredictable. My mother lives in the mountains and she is always saying “the weather dictates how we live and what we do”, and now I have a much fuller understanding of what she means. This was an important lesson to learn, as this weather event was not a disaster, and it passed. It did not equate to having to leave the mountains, or abandon the hike, or even leave the trail temporarily. The key factor in this equation was food. Once the food factor was again under our control, there was nothing left to be concerned with. All we had to do was wait a day for the weather to improve, and we could continue.

Around 1:00pm that day, I was just fixing to walk down to the river for some water, when I heard a helicopter overhead. At first, I just dismissed it, and then I realized it was “our” helicopter, bringing us food and they would be taking one hiker with them, Betty “Two Bar” who had a shoulder injury and needed to get off trail. The helicopter circled around and found a solid place in a snow field to land, and all of us hikers gathered around to watch this spectacle. They were very nice and at one point, the pilot called out “who is Milissa?” and I proudly waved my hands. She then announced that she had spoken with my Mom and wanted me to know that she was very concerned about me but they told her I was safe and ok. It was pretty funny, of course they talked with my Mom! 

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They suited Betty up and left us two giant garbage bags full of MRE food, and off they went. It all  happpened pretty fast. No sooner had the helicopter set off did we tromp over the snow back into camp and spread all the food rations out on the ground. We sorted them by category and divied them up. Later that day there was a pseudo stock market of MRE food trade going on around camp, which lifted our spirits considerably. MP3 ate FOUR meals back to back immediately. I don’t even want to know what that must have done wo his digestive system!

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Later that evening, Ned called a meeting to recap what had happened and to discuss the plan for getting over Forester Pass the next day. By then there were 17 hikers an we all agreed to be on trail by 6:00am and hike the pass together, each at our comfortable paces, and times, but generally with the strategy that Ned had discussed. He gave everybody great pointers as so how to summit, and how to get down on the other side, and we all agreed that we would make camp at Upper Vidette Meadow by the end of the day.

The next morning we woke to beautiful, crisp, clear blue skies. Like a Swiss train, we were ALL ready to hike at 6am and the entire group set off like ducklings. I decided to hang in the back and ended up with Ned and Prince all day. We brought up the rear of the train, and since the day was so promising, we decided to really take our time and enjoy it all, soaking it up, stopping to take pictures and recognize the blessings that we had received over the past days, the fact that we were safe, well fed, warm and dry and able to continue our hike was not glossed over. This is Ned and I heading toward Forester:

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We approached Forester about 11am and gathered to formulate a strategy for the path we would take up the pass, as it involved a very steep climb on a snowy slope up about 1,000 feet in a half mile, culminating in crossing the ice chute and climbing over the final lip which turned out to be a cornice. When we started that climb, I was already feeling winded, at 12,000 ft plus, it took a LOT of enery to kick every step into that wall of ice, in order to make sure that I had a solid foot hold. I was very intent on making sure not to slip and also to always use my balance, my poles, my boot and crampon edges, everything that Ned had taught us was leading up to this climb, and I wanted to be sure that I applied it. As, after this pass, we had 7 more major passes to do, without him! Once we got to the ice chute, I went first, and I was very impressed at the workmanship that went in to building the path. This is the ice chute as seen from far below, teo climbers at the top of the lip:

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It was literally a sidewalk, about 18″ wide, enough for your two feet, and one trekking pole, and it was about 50′ across a slope of about 60 degrees. I continued across and hit the dirt switchbacks which were the final climb up to the snow cornice. Once at the cornice, I stuck my feet back into the snow, and calculated my grips with both hands and feet. I looked straight up a wall about 15 feet high, and saw there were little holes dug into the wall for your feet. For some reason, I did not hesitate, I dug in, and intuitively sunk my ice axe into the wall, and pulled myself up. When I made it to the top, I could not make the stretch to the last step in the ice  ladder, and I had to use my knees in the snow for grip. I hugged the slope so tightly, feeling  the weight of my pack wanting to pull me back, and I pulled myself up and over the lip. I stood up and took a giant breath, and saw just ahead of me, the metal sign, Forester Pass 13,200 feet, and I smiled as a few tears welled up in my eyes. I had made it, and this meant, I could make it through all of the Sierra’s as a through hike. I was relieved, elated and just grateful for it all, every bit of it. This is the lip:

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Prince climbing over the lip:

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And me at the top:

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Once we all had made it up, and took in all the spectacular views, took photos and soaked it all in. We then had to get “down”. Ned guided us along the left side of the mountain on an arm where we could heel plunge quite comfortably. Following the first 500 feet down, we could then glissade to drop elevation very quickly, and I must say, in the most fun way. Glissading is basically sliding down the mountian on your butt, with an ice axe in your hand for self arrest. I lOVE it and ended up glissading about 5 more sections that day. It is really fun and I like that I am already on the ground. It make me feel safer, because I am not worried about slipping, I am essentially doing a controlled slip! It’s just great and makes me laugh like a little kid. My glissade trail:

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Prince and I walking by Lake 12550 with Forester in the background:

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We made it to Upper Vidette Meadow after a 5 mile SLOG through the snowy, slushy, post-holey forest which followed the most beautiful creeks. When we got to camp, I was done with a capital “D”. I was exhausted, cold, wet and hungry. I really had to get some dry clothes on and get food in me, and once I did, I bounced back quite quickly. Prince and Ned joined me and we sat in a little circle and ate our dinners an recounted the adventures of the day, and the week.

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