Trust Your Gut Or GPS? A Mountaineering Tale: Part Two
Decisions like these reinforce something deeper in a mountaineering sense: your own risk assessment and judgment. Wisdom that is hard won. I thought that I learned my lesson five days prior in New Mexico, but I was further humbled by this mountain. We continued our descent and finally made it to the crest of the connecting face down to the saddle where the rest of the team was waiting. The sun had set and evening’s light was slowly fading to darkness. We turned on our headlamps on and Gary flipped the switch on his strobe so that the rest of the party could track our descent from below. As we were closing in on the saddle, I took my last sip of water. I felt terribly dehydrated for the rest of the hike back. There were no streams at this altitude, so any water acquisition would require a stove to melt the snow, which we did not have. Quentin and I having faced the same situation on Wheeler Peak earlier that week, where we tried filling our Nalgene water bottle up with snow and holding them close to our body as we hiked to melt it. As clever as we thought this was, after hours of hiking the temperatures to did not rise enough within our coats to melt much more than a sip. We reunited with the rest of the team sitting behind the only suitable windbreak on the exposed, windswept saddle.
Reflecting back on this moment, I feel they had experienced a similar fortitude test that paralleled our foolish attempt on this peak. We had the luxury of moving swiftly towards our intended objective while they had to deal with what had to be an endless wait. Waiting for who knows what could happen. To them, the ridge we crossed could have been a precipitous traverse that may have cost a life. Now I’m speaking worse case scenario here, but after our day, everybody's heads’ had to be all over the place.
We all rallied at the small rock shelter and collected the rest of our gear and began our descent to camp. This was no easy matter. The path we chose to explore up was obviously not the drawn out route for this mountain so we had to find the trail connecting us to this saddle. If found, it would lead us back to the intended route that would connect us to camp. Gary pulled the map out of the side of his pack and we closely examined it. By discerning the elevation of the topography lines and that of the saddle, we were confident that the path lay to our right facing the original notch we descended. Night had fallen, so it was a challenge to pick out distinctive landmarks to help guide us. We could make up a long, shallow traverse of a face that seemed to wrap back around the side of the range our camp was positioned. We also saw some snow collecting in a definitive line that seemed to be the trail connecting to us on the saddle. We were able to discern it was the original path we planned to ascend, Queen Canyon Trail. Quentin and I were again in the lead. We turned our headlamps towards the trail and began what was to be a slug of a trek. We kept up our swift pace and were soon far ahead of the team.
*light blue line marking our bushwhacked route connecting to Queen Canyon then up Trail Canyon Saddle to the summit
The traverse followed a gradual incline up, then leveled off to a flat ridge. This would lead us to Queens Canyon Road. The night weather was temperate at this elevation compared to the wind we were experiencing higher up. I ended up stripping my outer layer. The pace we were setting was fast and my core temp was rising. At this point, I was rather upset at the decision we made and at Gary for letting it happen. Don't get me wrong, I trusted his leadership with my life and his unwavering optimism is remarkable, but decisions like these had to be made in the context of the whole group.
We began so determined to just make it back to camp that we forgot to look up. The moon had not yet risen and the stars were front stage. The band of the milky way cut through the blackness of the sky. Quentin and I turned off our headlamps and just stared up at the sky. We were a far distance ahead of the rest of the group scouting the trail, so we had ample time to take this in. The constellations filled our minds with wonder and to our astonishment were able to count the shooting stars we saw. My mind drifted introspectively, and for a moment the icy rock, the cold gales cutting across the ridge, and my sore body lifted away. The tranquility of the night sky is something that recharges me. It made we wonder how before this age of technology our relationship with the night sky shaped our view of this world. Using the stars for navigation was an old skill that very few use now.
The rest of the team caught up with us and asked if we were still on path. With our headlamps shallow and narrow beam it was becoming hard to discern what was a path and what was not but we still had confidence in our line and continued. We brought attention to the stars and everybody was soon mesmerized by the depth of the sky above. We all sat down and took a short break before we started back towards camp. I opened my pack and realized that I had eaten my last snack bag of trail mix while we were attempting our foolish summit bid. Also, taking inventory, my water was long gone and I was starting to feel my body catching up to me. We loaded our scattered gear back up and continued towards a notch we identified on the map which would lead to a small rock face connecting to the road hopefully. At this point we were full “zombie mode” on this trail. I was in that weird limbo state between sleeping and awake. I was resting on the ground when I glanced over to the horizon and saw the red silhouetted moon rising. It was a rather ominous sight for my weary eyes and I took it as a mountain omen.
We continued the descent and eventually made it to Queens Canyon Road. By this point my energy levels were close to zero, every step became a struggle. It was not because I was at altitude, on the other mountains I performed excellent. It was lack of water and nutrition. We looked up a steep 300 ft pass that connected us to the other side of the mountain range, where our camp was located. The snow we were walking through was deep and required us to put our snowshoes back on. In a daze, I was reluctant to put them back on. I was frustrated at myself and the situation and instead tried to hopscotch rock to rock, which only wore me out faster. About half way up this small pitch, I ripped the stowed snowshoes off my pack and fastened them to my feet. Every step became a victory. The key to moving through tough physical challenges, as with any challenge, is to break it down into small attainable goals. That rock just ahead, that bush just past that rock, the snow mound ahead. If you keep looking at the end goal (as simple as this was if I was fully hydrated and energized) you can get discouraged and make the task all the worse.
After what seemed an eternity, we finally stepped onto the flat saddle. I remember distinctly Quentin and I laying down head first in the snow, completely dead. As much as we wanted to nap and lay rest right there, we knew that that wasn't an option. Exposure would have surely gotten us overnight. Down in my prostration to the mountain, Gary was inching us forward and I remember vividly in the most serious tone saying “Leave me here to die.” Gary took it as sarcasm but I was far from that. He generously offered a protein bar for Quentin and I to share to get our energy levels back up. This was difficult to put down due to the lack of hydration in our parched mouths and overall body but it did help and I am very thankful for the generosity. Gary had to be feeling the same but had to keep a faithful optimism that camp was around the corner not to discourage the others. At this point we have been out 16 hours navigating this mountain.
Shortly after Quentin and I came back to reality through our haze, a tough decision needed to be made. Whether to follow the line made by the GPS, or take the road and trust it would lead us back to camp. The path marked by the GPS went right through the bush we so tediously trail blazed up. In comparison, the road looked fairly gradual and well marked through the dwindling spring snowpack. In my head, I was favoring the road. With our snowshoes equipped it would be a walk in the park. But this is where trust in GPS or awareness of one’s surrounding comes into play.
*The situation from above
I'm grateful for my instinctive sense of direction I have developed throughout my years. I was a very active member in the Boy Scouts of America since I was in first grade. The outdoor skills and reliance they aim to teach has at this point become subconscious to me. From the map and compass courses, to mock emergency medical situations on the trail, they taught us everything we would need to know not just survive but thrive in the wilderness. To me, there was no other visible road then the one we were staring at. It weaved down and around the ridges towards the general direction of our camp, which was on a road. In my head, the logic was screaming, but to the others it would be dumb to put faith in the road and instead take the more arduous GPS route down. I was very fed up at this point and me being my stubborn self would have taken the road alone if it wasn't for Quentin seeing my logic too. So at this point we separated, Gary, Matt, Taylor, Jess, Boe, and Greg followed the GPS marked line while Quentin and I were left to face the much more gradual road.
We slowly walked over to the start of it. It was situated at the edge of the saddle. I told Quentin to sit down and wait for me to further scout out the path. I didn't want to over commit both of us to this route if it turned out to be wrong. I had Quentin stay in position to keep on eye on the other teams headlamps if we had to end up rendezvousing back with them. But what would happen was entirely the opposite. I scouted out about a quarter mile down the road and declared it doable. After reaching the first bend I saw that the road indeed traversed down into the treeline towards our camp and again had no doubt it would lead us back. I called out back to Quentin to come forward but there was no response. I called again, my throat was very sorrow from the altitude and cold air but was still loud enough to carry up to him. Again, to my dismay, no response. At this point the frustration was boiling over, we had had such a laborious day that about every part of me was hurting, the last thing I wanted to do was traverse back up the grade I descended to retrieve Quentin.
I shouted and shouted and kept shouting. The other team, now a mile across from us on the neighboring ridge, had no idea what was going on but could hear our shouts and see our headlamps. To them, we signed the waiver before the trip basically saying if we died it was our own fault for abandoning the team, so to them it was the consequences of our folly. It had to have been 20 minutes before there was a movement of Quentin's headlamp. Finally he woke up! I shouted up and saw his lamp point towards me. After about 10 minutes he finally made it over. I could tell he was still in a delirious state and I had to press him to put on his snowshoes to follow me. He finally fastened them to his feet and we were off. I was leading us at a swift pace. Driven by all the food and snacks that would be back at our camp. Would it be the Poptart I eat first or the banana nut muffin I bought from the last store we stopped at? All the options were doing great at occupying my mind as we trekked down.
Quentin was finally fully awake and up with me. I asked him what the hell happened. “I don't know, man, last thing I remember was just waking up to the mountain view wondering where I hell I was at.” I was now laughing at the situation. On a mountain like this, between the relative altitude and weather conditions, we could have most definitely survived an overnight bivouac. Granted, it would have been a tough night, but with our combined exhaustion even the rocks were looking comfortable. We kept moving forward at our fast pace. The road, like I tried to convey to the rest of the six members of the team, was making up for time with its ease of passage. We looked up and saw way above us the headlamps of the rest of the team about to enter back into the thick treeline. We tried signally from below our position but we did not receive a signal back. We continued forward and within a half hour were back safe at camp. An hour or so later the rest of the team came trudging through camp. I was well snuggled in my sleeping bag by this point but peaked my head out of the tent to greet them. I was immediately met with exhaustion stricken faces coming back from what could have been a war. After a few vague responses, I curled up back into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes for the night.
So faced with the same situation what would you have done? Followed the road or GPS?