Sunday, June 8, 2014

Heart Lake, Take One

Yesterday I had one of the most epic fails of my hiking career. I didn't get injured, and I suppose if I ever do THAT hike would automatically move to the top of the epic fail list. This was more about poor preparation and unmet expectations. Read on if you dare...

Heart Lake Trail
My plan was to hike to Heart Lake in the James Peak Wilderness to shoot the sunset.  I'd never done a night hike before, and knew I'd be hiking back down to the trailhead in darkness for a couple of hours.  But I had a leash for Ginny, a headlamp and a flashlight so I figured I'd be fine.

Conditions had been overcast most of the day, and the forecast called for them to stay that way.  But the sun keep peeking out between breaks in the clouds.  So with nothing else on the docket, I figured it was at least worth a shot.  I see gorgeous pictures in nature photography magazines all the time that talk about how the weather didn't seem like it was going to cooperate, then suddenly ... BAM and the heavens open up and you get this once-in-a-lifetime view.  I was rolling the dice for a "bam" moment.

Heart Lake Trail
Things started off fine.  I was at the trailhead by 5:00, which I figured left plenty of time to cover the roughly four miles to the lake shooting as I went and be set up for sunset at 8:35.  There was pretty heavy runoff on the lower parts of the trail, which I'd expected.  Provided lots of opportunities for flowing water shots, which I love.

Heart Lake Trail
And this is where the photos end.  At the Crater Lakes trailhead about two miles in, the snow that had appeared as occasional drifts and piles now completely covered the ground.  I figured there'd be some snow, but nowhere near as much as there actually was.

The higher I went, the deeper the snow got.  I was now following tracks more than a trail, constantly scanning for blue swatches on the trees to confirm I was headed in the right direction.  After the trail crossed South Boulder Creek I lost sight of the swatches and ended up following the wrong set of tracks, losing half an hour of postholing in three-feet deep snow trying to reconnect.

Pro tip: If you're going to be hiking through three-feet deep snow you should really have snowshoes.  And not be wearing cargo shorts.  Just saying.

I eventually did what I probably should have done when I first realized I was off trail -- retraced my steps and picked it back up.  It was about 7:00 now, and I faced a decision.  Take my little misadventure as an omen and just turn back now, or press on?


Buoyed by rediscovering the trail and confident I could get to the lake in 90 minutes, I chose to forge ahead.  The blue swatches were my guide, and if I followed the heaviest foot traffic I didn't break through the snow.  I put my camera with the zoom lens away to be a little less encumbered and make better speed.  Things seemed to be back on track.

Then I lost the swatches again.

No biggie.  The footprints were all headed in the same direction.  Whether I was following the "official" trail or not, I was clearly going the same way those before me had.  And they must have had the same destination in mind.  So I headed up, following the tracks.

The trail got steeper.  The minutes kept ticking by.  Eventually I found myself right around treeline, with my right foot going numb thanks to being thoroughly soaked, completely fogged in, with the sounds of the creek to my right when my map said it should be on my left, and only 20 minutes left until sunset.

It may take me a while to accept that I'm not going to reach a goal.  But this was that time.

New plan: Get out of Dodge.  My second camera went back in my pack, my flashlight and leash came out, and Ginny and I turned around.

Speaking of Ginny, she was a trooper.  Always happy to go plunging into a snowdrift or splashing through a creek.  I couldn't have picked a better hiking dog three years ago when she was just a little rescue pup.

I expected the hike back to be a little nerve-wracking.  I'm not a huge fan of the dark, but assumed I'd just be following a trail I'd just ascended.  Instead I was trying to pick out footprints in the snow, which I had a hard enough time doing in full light.  That ratcheted up the nerve-wrackingness a tad.  And sure enough, I lost the trail about the same place I had on the way up.  I didn't waste 30 minutes hunting it for it this time, though.  I immediately re-traced, re-evaluated and got quickly back on track.

About 9:00 I actually ran into two guys heading OUT.  I commented, "I thought I was crazy.  What the heck are you doing?"  To which they replied, "We thought we were crazy.  What the heck are YOU doing?"  Turns out they were headed to Crater Lakes to camp and catch the sunrise.  And they had snowshoes.  And long pants.  I'm guessing they were fine, and hopefully got a gorgeous view this morning.

By 10:00 we were back at the car.  The distance it took us 3:15 to cover going up only took 1:45 coming back down, even in the dark.  I guess you could say we were pretty motivated to be done with our adventure.

We were cold, tired, wet, and sore.  And my nerves were completely frayed.  I actually had to pull the car over to retch a couple of times on the drive home.  We pulled into the driveway a little after 11:30 and took a hot shower -- yes, Ginny needed one, too.  And after a good night's sleep all is well again.

Did I learn anything?  Probably that snow sticks around above 10,000 feet a lot longer than I'd realized.  Probably that in better conditions I can handle night hiking.  And it was nice to be reminded how God looks out for us even when we don't have the good sense to look out for ourselves.

So while I called this an "epic fail," hopefully it will just turn out to be more of a temporary setback.  Heart Lake isn't going anywhere, so you can expect me to take another crack at it.  Just probably not until mid-July. :)


Orontes said...

Good story and good cautionary tale. So glad it didn't end with you cutting off your hand with a pocket knife. :)

SteveHarbula said...

I actually did have a pocket knife with me. But if I ended up in a situation my plan was to just send Ginny off to do her best Lassie imitation and bring back help. :)