Friday, April 1, 2011

Path of destruction

After 10 months of hiking in Washington several times a week, I failed a trail. It’s fitting that people come to this trail to see destruction since it ruined me. The Kautz Creek Valley has been ravaged over the years by massive mudslides, lahars and floods. A mudflow in 1947 decimated an entire forest. A flood in 2006 washed out a section of the park road and rearranged the trail.

As soon as I started down the muddy path, signs of destruction were visible. Dozens of trees blocked the trail and it was something of an obstacle course to navigate under, over and around branches that sometimes seemed to be reaching out for me. It wove through a forest of silver snags and dumped out at the creek in about a mile. Boulders provided a way across the dirty flow of water though my foot stomped through the snow and into the chilly water as I crossed a fork of the creek I hadn’t even known was beneath me. Mist-covered peaks loomed above the creek, which is clogged with tons of debris from all the flows and floods that have shaped it.

The route was a fairly steady climb from there – I think I gained about 3,100 feet in elevation. I had planned to snowshoe but they stayed strapped to my pack rather than my feet for the whole eight miles that I lasted. Although there was plenty of snow in the forest, the trail itself was so compacted that I could move quicker and easier in just my boots. Trudging uphill the entire time, the trail became less gradual and eventually became a series of steep switchbacks.

It was about here that my frustration became evident. I lost count of the times that my boot would suddenly crash through the crusty snow, thrusting me thigh-high into powder or slush and knocking me off balance. It made me cold, wet and cranky. It made my ankle turn and my knee twinge. It made me wonder what the hell I was doing on this particular trail when I already knew there would be no rewarding views or sense of accomplishment at the end. Yet, I kept on.

Another creek crossing and a few miles later, I found myself staring up Mount Ararat. My trail guide had described this section as a “long uphill trudge” so I thought nothing of climbing the incredibly steep hill. In fact, I had gone a quarter mile before I even paused long enough to realize how much elevation I’d gained and how slippery the snow was becoming. I had to kick my boot deep into the snow with each step so I wouldn’t fall backward. I managed a while longer – snagging my trekking poles from my pack helped – but it was such tough going that I tipped over once before my frightening slide. I could see the summit from where I was at – at least, I could see what looked like a ridgetop and a sliver of gray sky. I urged myself on. But I looked down and lost my footing – and slid on my stomach for several feet before catching a tree branch with my hand and hoisting myself up. I made back the distance and even went 20 feet further but I knew the slog down was going to be harder than it was up so I gave up.

I was even grumpier on the return, barely reacting when my legs sunk into random patches of slush or I slipped on a slope and fell. No, I refused to react so I just plucked a banana from my pack and sat there mulling my decision to leave without reaching the top. I’m still mulling.

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