A Little Bit of Knowledge Can Be Dangerous
By Rick Mannshardt
Sure, I could easily tell you about the hundred or so trips that turned out perfectly fine: all the times that we reached the summit of the mountain; paddled down the river without even getting our feet wet; or explored that foreign country without getting lost, injured, sick or marooned. But what fun would that be? I’d rather talk about the handful of trips where things went miserably wrong. Man, that’s the good stuff: the close calls and narrow escapes, the brushes with disaster, and those embarrassing screw-ups. In case you think the wilderness is there to be conquered, think again. There’s nothing like a good dose of humility to remind you how awesome this world is. Besides, you get waaay better stories to tell your friends when you get home. With that in mind, here’s an example of an adventure that started out perfectly fine until… well, you’ll see.
Part 1 of 3
TIMELINE: June 1991. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California.
Only one other car stood in the parking lot beside my own. Normally there’d be more than a dozen by this time of the morning. Then I saw why. Several bright orange warning signs stuck out of the snow near the trailhead: “Hazardous Winter Conditions Lay Ahead. Solo Travel Not Advised.” But I’d heard it all before. They never want you to do anything by yourself. If I’d followed that kind of advice, I’d have rarely left home my entire life. But this was different. I should have given this more thought; I should’ve realized how many things could go wrong. But I didn’t; and I didn’t. The bad decisions were starting to pile up.
They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One day many years ago I learned this firsthand. I’d already climbed Lassen Peak three times and thought I knew the mountain. But I knew only a small part of it. This story involves that little bit of knowledge and the bigger bit of trouble that I got myself into because of it.
It was June 1991. In a move both spontaneous and desperate, I had just requested a month’s stress leave from my job as the manager of a movie theater in the East Bay at the worst possible time of the year—right at the onset of the busy summer season. I was amazed when my boss said OK. He must’ve sensed that if I didn’t get this time off I was going to quit.
A week later, I embarked on the first of six trips that I’d take during that one month. Knowing only that I had to get away, I’d thrown some mountaineering gear in the back of my truck and headed north. My hastily hatched plan was to solo climb not only Lassen, but also Mount Shasta, a peak I’d come close to summiting twice already. This grandiose plan didn’t have much of a future; it would die halfway to completion. Luckily, I didn’t die along with it.
A hundred miles below the Oregon border, Lassen stands as the southernmost volcano in the fiery Cascade Range. At an altitude of 10,457 feet, it’s also one of the smallest. But size is a false barometer; it’s easy to get into trouble on any mountain if you’re not careful—or even if you are. From the parking lot at 8500 feet, the hike to the summit takes roughly two hours. The first time I did it was as an eleven year old Boy Scout, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The most recent was in the company of a not-so-athletic girlfriend. So I saw no reason to check on current weather conditions or call ahead to the park ranger station. If I had, I would’ve learned about the unusually heavy snowpack still clinging to the mountains of Northern California that year.
So fifty miles south of Redding on Highway 5, I saw something on the horizon that surprised me. Mount Shasta had moved eastward. At least that’s how it seemed. In reality it was Lassen, locked in a solid mantle of snow– uncharacteristic for this late in the season. More confident than concerned, I didn’t think about the implications of this and continued on.
Early the next morning, I left my camp at the north end of Lassen Volcanic National Park and drove twenty miles to the trailhead at the foot of the mountain. In dramatic contrast to its normal summer façade, the mountain lay blanketed with snow from base to summit. Fifteen foot snow banks surrounded the parking lot. I barely recognized the place. The technical snow climbing gear I’d brought with me was intended for Shasta. I didn’t anticipate needing it here on Lassen. What I hadn’t brought however, would prove even more significant: I’d left both map and compass at home. My reasoning seemed valid: I’d been here three times already. So why would I need a map for this clearly marked trail hike? Would I have used a GPS to get to my neighborhood 7-Eleven? Oh course not. I knew I needed to use extra caution, but this climb looked well within my abilities. After all, those orange warning signs were directed at eleven year old Boy Scouts and not-so-athletic girlfriends, right?
Digging through my bag, I found my snow climbing gear. I strapped on my crampons and grabbed my ice ax. I then shouldered my day pack, and under a gray cloud-laden sky, struck off up the trail. It was roughly 8 AM. I planned to be back at camp by noon. The mountain had other plans.
Aside from the abundant snow, the ascent proved uneventful. At times the trail lay hidden so I improvised the best I could, following the lay of the land. I made good time up the southeast ridge and reached the summit plateau in a couple hours. A brisk wind was blowing from the north. From here, the summit stood less than ten minutes away.
It was here that I encountered the fellow climber whose car I’d seen in the parking lot earlier. Too far away to speak to, he made his way toward the small eroded summit crater. I waved and continued on, and lost track of him after that. A hundred yards to the northeast stood the summit pinnacle, the jumbled tower of lava that rises a hundred feet above the rim of the crater. Even under favorable conditions, its jagged boulders demand coordination and balance. With this protective armor of snow and wind, it looked dangerous– almost forbidding.
I’d never faced this mountain alone before. And I’d certainly never seen it under these wintry conditions. Only now did I understand what that implied: Trouble was close; getting help was not. I hesitated, studying the rocky pinnacle– perhaps hoping to talk myself out of it. Its back face overlooked a sheer cliff that dropped into a vast bowl-shaped cirque, strewn with volcanic rubble. If I slipped off the edge I’d roll a thousand feet before I hit the first rocks. The condition of the snow was hard to gauge from where I was. It might be firm and stable; just as easily it could be icy and slick. But it was the wind that convinced me; the mountain’s cold unseen breath that told me that the summit plateau was as far as I should go today. I didn’t need to reach the pinnacle this time.
I unshouldered my pack and pulled out my camera. Setting the timer, I squatted down in the snow to capture a wide angle self portrait as the wind continued to buffet the plateau. Without pausing for food or drink, I then packed up and started my descent. I expected to be back at my truck in an hour or two.
It was strange; the trail I’d used on the way up just minutes earlier didn’t look as familiar as I would’ve expected. It was as though I’d forgotten how I got here. Obscured by snow, the switch-backed trail proved difficult to follow with any reliability. Periodically, I’d find myself losing track of it and then meeting up with it again. I wasn’t concerned though. It seemed better to take the easiest way down rather than worry about the exact route as long as I was heading in the right general direction.
This was where my train of logic started to leave the track—when I started to venture away from the trail. I didn’t realize at the time how much easier it is to get lost heading down a mountain than it is going up. On the ascent, nearly every route leads to the summit. On the way down, the paths fan out into a maze of possibilities that end up miles apart from each other. But today, I wasn’t concerned. I was confident in my knowledge of the mountain. But it wasn’t enough knowledge.
I knew from previous experience that the two-lane highway through the park ran alongside the foot of the mountain at about 8500 feet, roughly at the timberline. I reasoned that if I got off course and missed the parking lot, I would eventually reach that road and could follow it back to my truck. What I didn’t understand was that the highway borders the mountain for only a short distance. In order to avoid pristine Paradise Meadow, an area nearly the size of the peak itself, the highway makes a huge detour, and at one point lies more than four miles from the summit. But I was under the assumption that the road made a tight circle around the entire southeastern flank of the mountain. This one misconception (that could easily have been corrected if I’d brought my map) allowed me to deviate from the trail without much concern. And I was so unconcerned that I didn’t bother to remember which way I’d deviated. Each time I came across a slope too steep to descend safely, I simply took the longer route around it. I even slid down some of the slopes. I was having fun.
But instead of enjoying myself, I should have been paying more attention. Since I was following a new route I didn’t expect to recognize the terrain, so I didn’t worry about it. I continued down the mountain thinking only about the road that would serve as my safety net. Normally the descent from Lassen Peak takes a little more than an hour. Because of the heavy snow and the unfamiliar route, I figured on a two hour trek at most.
But before I was fully aware of it, two hours had come and gone. I was now below the timberline, which lay at the same elevation as my awaiting truck. At this point, I was perhaps only a few hundred yards from it. Had I realized this, I could’ve turned right and followed the contour of the mountain until I reached the parking lot. But I didn’t. Oblivious to the thickening forest, I continued descending, expecting to come across the road at any moment. But it never appeared.
Even when I realized I’d probably dropped below the elevation of the parking lot, I kept going. It made more sense to keep searching for the road rather than to expend more energy trudging back uphill through soft snow.
Eventually there came a point where my error became too obvious to ignore. Nothing looked even vaguely familiar. Clearly I’d ventured way off course and had descended farther than I should have. Somehow I’d missed the road—the one thing I’d been counting on to guide me back to my truck. So now, my safety net was gone—my navigational beacon. Worse, I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten here. I’d deviated from the route so many times I wasn’t sure if I was north of the parking lot or south. Did I need to head left or head right to correct my error? I really didn’t know. But I knew I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I was lost.
Sit down. Remain calm. Figure out where you got off track. These are the principles they teach you in the Boy Scouts– the mental tools that are supposed to kick in if you ever lose your way in the wilderness.
I wish I’d been thinking clearly enough to remember any of this, but in truth I wasn’t. I didn’t sit down, nor did I remain calm. I certainly wasn’t panicked, but I was far from clear-headed. The only thing to kick in was a compulsion to do something—something immediate. Usually when you first discover that you’re lost, you’re only a little bit lost. The situation is still salvageable. The whole point of staying calm is to keep that situation from getting worse. But I kept moving, not realizing I was venturing deeper into the wilderness.
Continuing down slope through the deepening snow, I had no way of knowing how long I might be out here. It could easily be several days. The problem was that I’d packed for a four-hour trip. I hadn’t brought any overnight gear with me—no tent, no sleeping bag, no stove. All I had was a down jacket and a few other layers; some snacks and water. Unconsciously I started to think about priorities. I knew that a person can survive for a week or more without food, and a few days without water. But hypothermia was the thing to worry about; it can kill in a matter of hours (or minutes, in frigid water.) If I was going to survive this, I needed to find the warmest place I could. Without the means for making a fire, this meant I had to get down to a lower elevation as soon as possible.
This became my new focus– to the exclusion of all else. I no longer worried about finding my way back to the parking lot or even the road that led to it; navigation was nothing more than a guessing game by this point anyway. Nor did I want to waste any energy backtracking up the mountain trying to locate the route I should’ve taken. I needed to conserve the energy I had left. The important thing was to get lower down as soon as possible. Descending a thousand feet of elevation raises the air temperature by roughly three degrees Celsius. Each of those precious degrees of warmth would increase my chances. I soon found myself on auto-pilot, heading downhill almost single-mindedly. Once or twice I tried navigating by landmarks, finding what looked like a road in the far distance and heading for it. But I kept losing my bearings as the trees obscured my view. So I continued moving straight downhill.
After putting several more miles behind me, I noticed that the landscape had changed. The trees had closed in more tightly around me; I was moving deeper into the forest. The slope had also leveled off considerably since I’d dropped below timberline. No longer on the mountain proper, I’d now reached the gently graded foothills that surrounded it. Snow still covered the ground, but volcanic boulders, some more than six feet high, frequently protruded through it. Others lay hidden just below the surface. The heavy clouds that had obscured the sky all morning kept the temperature brisk from the night before, yet the snow remained deep and soft. I frequently sank to mid-calf, but managed to keep a good pace.
At one point as I was sloshing down a steep incline, I lost my balance and fell forward. My knee slammed against a rock, ripping my wind pants. After limping a few steps I stopped to take a look at it. My knee was OK—just a minor abrasion. But it was only now that the real weight of my situation hit me: I was alone; I was off-trail in deep snow, and I was in an area that hadn’t yet opened for the season. If I became badly injured, I’d be stuck. I’d die here. They wouldn’t find me until the summer thaw.
I knew I had to be more careful if I was going to make it out of here. I couldn’t afford to get injured; I couldn’t afford any more mistakes. I slung my pack back over my shoulder and started in again, this time at a slower, more deliberate pace. Caution, rather than obsession, became my new mantra. The soft snow cushioned each step; I began to feel better. In my heart I knew I’d get out of this eventually. The only question was when.
Part 2 of 3
After what felt like several hours of wandering through the snowy back country of Lassen National Park, I convinced myself that I’d learned something from all this. I made a promise. I vowed never to stray from an established trail by myself again; never to repeat such a monumental mistake. With each passing minute I became more sincere, believing that remorse alone would somehow grant me deliverance. I kept telling myself, “Really, I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t need to stay out here for a week to get the point.” I wanted to walk out of this forest today, while I was still in good shape– not dragging myself back to civilization a week from now after being reduced to a scraggly, hunger-crazed hermit. But I knew I was kidding myself. Good intentions wouldn’t buy a thing out here; nor would some desperate repentant prayer. I couldn’t simply will my way out of this situation. I’d put myself here physically—through carelessness. According to Natural Law, I had to pay the price for that carelessness; a price of equal worth. This ordeal wouldn’t end until I earned my way out of it.
It may not have occurred to me at the time, but mental attitude is everything when you’re lost in the wilderness. That was another thing they teach you in the scouts; a skill as vital as making fire or finding water. Otherwise you can easily become your own worst enemy, succumbing to reactive emotions and pessimism, and sliding further downhill. That was a lesson I’d somehow forgotten. But in my own defense, it had been twenty years since my scouting days.
After another mile, I came upon a shallow rise in the middle of a clearing. Then something caught my eye. Winding through the snow twenty yards ahead of me lay a trail of footprints. At first I thought they were animal tracks. But as I got closer it became evident that they were too large for that. I stumbled ahead through the snow to get a better look. When I got there I discovered that the tracks were human. It was difficult to tell how old the tracks were, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that someone had been here before. Someone knew the way out.
I began to follow the trail. Encouraged for the first time, I found myself speeding up again. I finally had a direction—an informed direction. I wasn’t wandering blind anymore. These tracks had to lead somewhere– a roadside trailhead or a campground of some kind. Perhaps I’d get out of here today.
I stayed with the tracks, following them through the snow over hillocks and along gullies for a hundred yards or so. Yet the route seemed to be somewhat random; it didn’t follow the natural slope of the terrain. I began to have doubts. As I studied the prints more carefully I realized that I couldn’t tell which way they were going. The snow had melted a great deal since the tracks were laid, making it impossible to discern a heel from a toe. From there the doubts continued to escalate. What if these tracks were going somewhere I didn’t want to go? Perhaps they led deeper into the forest, or even back up the mountain. Maybe the person who made these tracks was lost himself. What if I came upon his frozen body over the next rise– his eyes pecked out by crows? I ruminated over every inane possibility; doubting, second guessing. I couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. What if someone else was out here right now following my trail? What if he came across my tracks in the hope of getting back to civilization and ended up following the same path-to-nowhere that I was on?
This was crazy. Was I now responsible for the survival of other people in addition to my own? Perhaps I was better off following my own instincts. So I decided to give up on the tracks and continued without them, following a more logical course down slope.
By now I was definitely beyond the possibility of going back. I’d put too many miles behind me– invested too much energy. I had to stick with this plan until something better came along. Very soon, it did.
Over the crunch of my footsteps, I heard the distinctive sound of running water. It was coming from beneath the snow. Apparently I was following a drainage that was beginning to collect recent snowmelt. I couldn’t see it but it was definitely there. I knew that water generally flows toward populated areas, so I decided to follow the sound. I figured that at some point this stream had to cross a road. It might not be for another fifty miles, but at least I wouldn’t be traveling in circles. I’d also have a steady source of water along the way.
It was reassuring to have a new course—something more practical than following vague footsteps in the snow. I kept moving. Aside from checking out my bruised knee, I didn’t stop once. I was focused, perhaps even obsessed. Following this hidden stream beneath the snow became my single purpose; it was my compass. I barely noticed the scenery; didn’t stop to eat, drink, or pee. I just followed the sound. Later I would regret not having the foresight to stop and take a few photographs of myself while I was lost. It would have been a cool souvenir—a record of my driven condition. But since it had nothing to do with getting me out of the forest, photography wasn’t even on my radar. I couldn’t afford to expend even a teaspoon of my limited energy on anything so frivolous or aesthetic.
Still, I had no idea where I was or where I’d end up. I’d put so many miles behind me at this point I was worried that I might’ve crossed over the border into the vast national forest that surrounded the park. With no trails, campgrounds or other features– and far fewer roads, there wouldn’t be much out there to find– like being lost at sea. But I couldn’t worry about that now. I just had to keep following the sound beneath my feet.
As the elevation continued to drop, the temperature began to edge its way upward. The wintry blanket beneath me, once as limitless as the forest, was starting to come apart. Bare patches of brown earth peered through holes in the snow. What was once winter now revealed the beginnings of spring. As these fingers of earth emerged there came a new level of hope; a heightened sense of confidence. I now found myself less concerned about surviving the night. I was still lost, but for the first time I began to feel that I’d be all right. I was probably going to make it.
Then something bright caught my attention—something that didn’t seem to belong here. Eight feet off the ground, nailed to a pine tree, was a small yellow disk. It appeared to be some sort of marker—a man-made marker. Aside from the footprints in the snow, this was the first trace of human evidence I’d seen since leaving the summit. Holy shit. This was no trackless expanse of back-country. I’d found a trail.
At first, there wasn’t much else to go on—a vague impression in the landscape; the merest suggestion of a path. No person or creature had come through here since the snow had arrived several months earlier. There were no tracks, no worn patches, nor any broken tree limbs. Almost experimenting, I began to follow what looked like the course of the trail, scanning the periphery for anything definitive. Fifty yards later, I came across another one of the reflective markers. This confirmed it; I was on an official hiking trail. Thousands of people had probably traveled this route over the years. It had to lead somewhere—a road, a lake, a parking lot… something. And whatever that something was, it was a hell of a lot better than the vague nothings I’d been following up till now.
Snow still obscured the trail itself. My only clues were the markers, which I had to join together like a life-sized game of “connect the dots.” The distance between the markers varied, depending on the terrain. Sometimes they came every hundred feet; sometimes farther apart. I never knew when to expect the next one. I probably missed a few. For a quarter mile I managed to keep finding them; each one just when I needed to; just before I lost the thread completely.
At one point however, it occurred to me that it had been a while since I’d seen the last marker. I should’ve come across the next one by now. I kept walking; kept scanning the trees—but there was nothing. After another fifty yards I knew that I’d lost the trail. But I didn’t want to waste any energy backtracking to the last known marker. I’d be going in circles. It seemed smarter to keep going forward—keep moving down slope. So I continued on, following what looked like the natural route.
This strategy proved to be a good one. Eventually, I came upon another marker, indicating that I’d relocated the trail. This time I managed to follow it for another quarter mile before finally losing track of the markers altogether. I wasn’t concerned though; I knew I was moving in the right general direction. Some sort of sign or clue would eventually turn up again.
As I had dropped a considerable amount of elevation by this time, the snow cover had become even sparser. Large bare patches of ground were becoming more frequent, indicating my arrival into a more hospitable world; a more familiar one. Even my footsteps sounded different; the reassuring thud against earth had now replaced the hollow crunch on fallen snow. And there were other optimistic signs. I looked up through the trees and noticed that the clouds had opened up. The sun was shining; the sky was blue. The warmth of the day had finally enveloped me in a cocoon of safety. I was off the mountain; away from the danger. Yet I was still wearing several layers of cold weather clothing, and the crampons were still strapped to my boots. Too focused on making headway off the mountain, I’d been hesitant to stop and remove any of this gear even though I was now starting to sweat.
Emerging from this tunnel vision and a bit more relaxed, I noticed that the vegetation had begun to change. I was leaving the wooded forest and was now making my way into a grassy clearing. As I continued on, the trees receded further and the clearing opened up into a wide alpine meadow. Beneath me now lay a carpet of green grass and leafy plants. Spring wild flowers appeared everywhere, bringing color to a landscape that had been devoid of it for so long. But I didn’t allow myself to enjoy this beauty. I was still lost. I couldn’t let down my guard.
I soon came upon another stream and began to follow it. Typical of meadow streams, it was deep, clear and meandering—large enough to float a canoe on. Fresh off the mountain and nearly as cold as the snow that it had so recently been, it snaked lazily along the floor of the valley. I continued alongside it for a hundred yards or so. Eventually it split into a maze of several channels, forming a sort of delta. It was difficult to tell which route was the best to follow, and I found myself unsure how to proceed– as unsure as the water itself seemed to be. I slowed down, keeping well away from the steep undercut banks which lay hidden beneath the thick carpet of meadow grass. Falling into that cold water was the last thing I needed. Continuing along the outermost branch of the delta, I followed the stream for several hundred yards. Then I ran into the thicket.
A seven foot high barrier of finger-like branches blocked my path, spanning the entire width of the meadow like the wall of a fortress. The only break in the tangle of sticks was at the stream itself. On the opposite bank the thicket continued, just as impenetrable. Without a boat or a raft there was no way to get through. The only other option was to detour around the entire meadow. But I didn’t want to stray too far from the stream and risk losing sight of it. It was my only compass at this point. The direct route looked like the best alternative. I decided to plow straight through it.
Keeping my head down to protect my eyes I started in, stabbing my way through the thicket with a crackling racket. I must’ve spooked every living creature who’d taken refuge in there. Progress wasn’t as slow as I’d anticipated; I was able to move fairly easily. But I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into as I pushed through the maze of branches that had now swallowed up the horizon. I couldn’t see more than four feet in front of me. It was almost funny; I was now lost in a tiny forest in the middle of a huge one. How had I gotten myself into such a mess? I had no idea where I was heading; I was miles off course, and no one knew I was here. Some Scoutmaster’s son I turned out to be– blazing a trail to nowhere.
The thicket proved to be wider than deep. It was actually more of a wall than a forest. After a few more minutes of bushwhacking I was out through the other side and back in open meadow. Locating the stream banks again, I resumed following the course of the waterway.
By now, the sun had burned away nearly every cloud in the sky and the air temperature had climbed comfortably into the sixties. My concerns about survival had largely disappeared, and for the first time all day I found myself slipping into something faintly resembling relaxation. I’d been pushing on for hours; it felt good to ease up a bit. Only now did I realize I was still wearing my crampons which had been unnecessary since leaving the snowy terrain several miles back. Stopping beside a downed log, I reached down and unstrapped them from my boots. I also took the opportunity to shed the layer of mountaineering clothing I no longer needed and stowed it in my pack. I took an overdue drink from my water bottle, tied the crampons to the outside of my pack and continued on my way.
Less encumbered, I was moving faster now, though still unsure where I was heading. But that was OK. For the first time all day I wasn’t worried about getting out of here. I was warm; I was safe; I was in a comfortable frame of mind. For the time being at least, I wasn’t lost in the mountains; I was on a stroll through the countryside.
In another half mile I found myself nearing the end of the meadow. Evergreen trees began to appear again, dotting the open landscape. Looking up ahead, I saw the horizon was disappearing; I was re-entering the forest. I was just beginning to wonder what this meant; wondering if there’d be another trail to follow. Then, I heard the voices…
Part 3 of 3
I didn’t know what to think. Several years earlier, during a period of similar duress, I’d also heard voices. That time, in the wooded hills of a remote regional park, there didn’t seem to be anyone there—I’d probably imagined it. But if there was even a chance that these voices were real, I had to know. It might be my only way out of here. I fell into a run, the crampons tied to my pack clanking awkwardly as I bounded off in the direction of the sound. I didn’t want to lose the scent; it was a fragile thread. Almost unconsciously, I found myself calling out into the forest, hoping for a response: “Hello!… Hello!” There was nothing. I kept running, scanning the woods for the slightest sign of movement. Had I really heard those voices? Or was I so desperate that I imagined them? Was I chasing ghosts?
Then I saw them– three unmistakable human forms: a man, a woman, and a child—a classic nuclear family. But it seemed like a dream; they looked out of place. What were they doing here? How had they gotten this deep into the back country? I kept running, fearing they hadn’t seen me and would disappear into the trees again. In a stab of panic I became convinced this was my last hope to save myself, and that if I blew this there’d be no second chance. I sped up, desperately calling out once again to get their attention.
When I caught up with them, something became very clear. By the way they were dressed I knew I couldn’t be far from civilization. The man was wearing the classic plaid Bermuda shorts of a stereotypical tourist. The woman had curlers in her hair and cheap sandals on her feet. The child was no more than six years old. I laughed. There was no way this group would’ve ventured very far from a paved road.
They looked at me with puzzled expressions. Out of breath and feeling stupid for succumbing to such melodrama, I asked them how far it was to the nearest road. With a lack of emotion that only magnified my self-consciousness, they told me the road was less than a hundred yards away. Good God. Only a hundred yards. In an instant, the entire weight of the day fell from my shoulders. I was saved.
I thanked them profusely for their help, which they seemed to think a bit extreme. But I didn’t mind looking silly– I needed to show my gratitude. Then I turned onto the manicured trail they’d been following, and pushed on toward civilization.
Within two minutes I was there. In one of the most extraordinary moments of my life, I stepped back into a world I’d forgotten how to fully appreciate. I now found myself standing at the edge of a paved parking area. Admittedly, it was the most ordinary of trailheads; one of the quieter sites in the park. But I was overcome by a wealth of activity and detail: family cars packed with coolers and tents; people taking pictures and enjoying the mountain scenery; kids playing with abandon near the meandering creek. Sights and sounds that I’d either ignored or avoided earlier now seemed musical. In contrast to the isolation I’d experienced since the day began, this was a Fourth of July picnic on Main Street; a soldier’s welcome home party.
I was at a place called Hat Lake. Actually, there’s no lake at all anymore. During the last big eruption of Lassen, volcanic debris buried the lake, leaving only a gentle depression in the landscape. But it was still a place, and people had gathered here to enjoy themselves. Thanks to them, I’d found it too.
I suppose I could’ve asked someone for a ride, considering how far it was back to my truck. But I didn’t care. I was back on established territory again; back on the grid. In front of me lay a well-defined asphalt pathway leading back to where I’d started early this morning. As long as I kept the road beneath my feet, I’d be all right. Even if I collapsed from exhaustion miles down the road, eventually someone would drive by to pick me up and drag my ass back to safety. It didn’t matter that I’d just climbed a 10,000 foot peak, got lost on the way down and had to hike several miles through the wilderness. Nor did it matter that I was now about to embark on another uphill hike for an equally unknown number of miles. I didn’t even think about how much gas I had left in my tank at this point; I was happy to continue hiking. The ironic thing was that I was already halfway back to my camp at the north entrance of the park. I now had to backtrack a considerable distance to get to my truck at the Lassen Peak trailhead, where all my gear was waiting. So it goes.
Context can make all the difference. Now that I was no longer lost, I found myself renewed; my battery fully recharged. I welcomed this next part of the adventure. I felt back in control, which was an illusion of course– but that illusion was enough to elevate my spirits. After saying hi to several people in the parking lot, I stepped out onto the pavement and began heading up the road.
Lassen had always been one of my favorite national parks– one that I’d enjoyed since I was a Boy Scout with my dad and older brother. Its abundance of volcanic features like hot springs, sulfur fumaroles, mud pits and several accessible volcanoes made it unique; a Disneyland of geological opportunities. I was now back in a mental space where I could enjoy it all again and appreciate the aesthetic beauty. The first few miles were pleasant and agreeable: the road gently graded; the spring scenery bountiful. A car rolled by every twenty minutes or so. Aside from that, the atmosphere was peaceful, rejuvenating. The elevation at this point was only 6500 feet, so I made good time. I saw no reason why I couldn’t make it all the way back to my truck on foot.
The miles elapsed one by one, taking me past meadows, creeks and thick stands of forest. Eventually the road began to gain elevation, rising out of the small alpine valley on its way back toward the foothills that surrounded the mountain. For the first time since leaving Hat Lake I was beginning to feel tired. That initial surge of adrenaline that had propelled me down the highway when I emerged from the forest had now worn off. The welcoming party was over; I was starting to feel the weight of all those cumulative miles when I was lost in the snow. I kept going, but soon found myself considering my other options. With each car that passed by, I began to ask myself if it was time to think about hitch-hiking. I’d surely earned that luxury by now.
After another mile or two of increasing weariness, that idea sounded even better. So I began, rather casually, to thumb a ride. Lassen, like most other national parks, sees a great many families visit each summer. Most of the cars that passed me had little kids in the back seat. I thought of how I must’ve looked to these people, walking this wooded road by myself. I wasn’t really surprised that every vehicle raced by me with hardly a glance. I’m sure I would’ve done the same thing. I never did feel comfortable hitch-hiking. I felt guilty asking people to trust a stranger. Perhaps that attitude showed on my face. So I kept walking, giving up my attempts to get a ride. Maybe I wasn’t tired enough yet.
But an hour later after nearly nine miles on the road, I was noticeably slowing down. I was at an elevation of nearly 8000 feet, and the road continued to steepen. The pleasant meadows and verdant countryside had long since given way to a stark alpine landscape as I now found myself back within the snow pack of Lassen’s lower flanks. It was ironic; after struggling so desperately to get down from the mountain, I was now starting to climb back up. I’d been on the move since eight o’clock this morning, having rested perhaps only twenty minutes in all that time. The weight of my pack and the thin air were draining me. Undeniably fatigued, I was now stopping every few hundred yards to catch my breath. And it was going to get worse. I still had several miles to go before reaching my truck, which was parked at 8500 feet– the highest point on the road in the entire park. I was beginning to doubt that I’d be able to make it that far.
Slightly hunched, I stopped beside an eight-foot snow bank, working the thinning air into my lungs. I didn’t have much more left in me. I was going to need that ride. Yet my earlier hitch-hiking attempts had been fruitless. No one wanted to help me. So I decided it was time to try something more radical. Determined that the very next car would pick me up, I walked out into the middle of the roadway and stopped.
Within a minute, a pickup truck came around the curve and pulled up to a stop in front of me. An unmistakable logo emblazoned the door. It was an official National Park vehicle. The timing was perfect; it couldn’t have been any more ironic. Two uniformed park employees were seated inside—well-scrubbed and bright-eyed. The Marines had landed—I was saved. But my relief didn’t last long. When I told them I needed a lift they informed me that federal regulations forbade them from giving rides to non-government personnel, except in emergency situations. It was a matter of liability. Despite my overwrought emotional state, this wasn’t really an emergency. They knew it and I knew it.
Normally, I accept this sort of thing and go on my way. But not today. I was too exhausted to let the federal government or any other bureaucracy stop me. These guys were just doing their job, but I was desperate. So I kept at it, going back over my story in great detail, embellishing it with all the necessary emotion. Each time they reiterated the government policy, I laid a little more of my sob story on them. I didn’t know how long this was going to take. The one thing I knew was that I wasn’t going to let them drive off without me. They finally gave in, with the provision that I fasten my seat belt and never mention their names to anyone. O.K. It’s a deal. I’ll call them Fed One and Fed Two. After throwing my pack in the back, I climbed in between the two of them in the front seat, and we were off.
The ride to 8500 feet took less than five minutes, but I relished every yard of it. These guys were all right; I was grateful they’d bent their rules for me today. I would’ve been stumbling up this road for another hour if they hadn’t come along. Or I might’ve ended up face down in a ditch.
Cresting the last rise in the road, we reached the trailhead parking lot at the snow-bound base of Lassen Peak. They dropped me off at my truck, and before they left I managed to thank them several more times, bestowing upon them all the blessings of a clergyman. It may have been melodrama, but I didn’t want the Fed Boys to think I was ungrateful.
I’d never been happier to see my truck in my entire life. I was finally safe again, back where I’d started nine hours ago. I’d not only survived the ordeal, but I’d done so without serious injury. Considering the monumentally stupid moves I’d made today, I’d been extremely fortunate. Now I just had to get back to camp.
As I stowed my pack in the back of my truck, I remembered something. Tomorrow I was planning to continue north toward Mount Shasta, for another solo climb. I wasn’t so sure about that now. At more than 14,000 feet, fraught with glaciers and avalanches but no trails, Shasta is ten times the mountain that Lassen is. I’d already had more adventure than I’d planned on at this point, and had certainly used up my share of luck. Perhaps this wasn’t the time to face Shasta alone. One mountain was enough this time around.
The drive back to my camp at the north entrance of the park was twenty miles, but I marveled at the speed and effortlessness with which I was now able to travel. Retracing at highway speed the final nine miles that I’d covered on foot warped my sense of distance and time, almost trivializing the mountainous terrain that I’d struggled through earlier. Everything is relative. When I arrived back at Manzanita Lake Campground, I was surprised how early it was. The ordeal that seemed to have consumed an entire week had left me with several hours of daylight. Breathing in the pleasantly warm air, I was almost embarrassed at the gentle ease of the afternoon.
I should have been satisfied simply to be back at camp, spending the remainder of the day in a safe cocoon around my campfire with food and drink. I’d certainly earned it. Yet something was gnawing at me—something petty perhaps, but symbolic. I’d just spent the last six hours doing something I hadn’t planned to do while I was on vacation: saving my own life. In effect, I was working. It was stressful, the way being on someone else’s time can be. I now felt that I needed to be compensated to restore a sort of balance. I needed to do something leisurely with the time I had left in the day– something of my own choosing. And what do I like to do with my leisure time? I like to go hiking. So I did. I went for a hike around the lake. As I reached the grassy shoreline path, I realized the significance of this trifling two-mile stroll. It was my way of showing that I still had something left in me. Those fifteen miles earlier today had been a necessity. These next few were going to be a luxury. And they were.
Looking back, I’ve asked myself what the take-away was from this; the lesson learned. Certainly venturing off-trail alone– especially in snow– is a bad idea regardless of how well you might know the terrain. Furthermore, I was reminded that the most important piece of equipment you take with you in the outdoors isn’t inside your pack or clipped to your belt. It’s between your ears. If you lose that, you’re definitely heading for trouble. This wouldn’t be the last time I’d hit the trail on my own. But it certainly was the last time I let overconfidence be my map and compass.
Copyright © 2015 by Eric Mannshardt and I Didn’t Climb Everest.net.
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