A Night Alone in the Woods
By Rick Mannshardt
Part 1 of 2
Timeline: November 2005, Mount Shasta, Northern California
What do you do when you start to lose your nerve merely camping at the foot of the mountain you’ve climbed more than a dozen times? You write the story and own up to it… ‘cuz any experience that helps you grow is worth talking about.
This story was supposed to be about pedaling a bike halfway up a 14,000 foot volcano. Sure, I did the ride. But guess what? The night I spent camping alone on the mountain beforehand ended up being far more memorable than the ride itself. So that’s where we’re going.
Actually, I used to do a lot of outdoor stuff by myself: hiking, biking, camping, even mountain climbing. It may have been more difficult that way, but I grew to love it. In fact, most of my breakthroughs were on solo trips. Even on those occasions when I screwed-up and got myself lost, I was always OK being on my own in the wilderness.
But losing my brother Gary to cancer in 1994 changed my whole world. Not long afterwards, I felt the need to reconnect with my other brothers, who I hadn’t spent much quality time with since we were kids. Soon the three of us began going on regular backpacking and mountain climbing trips together. It was great. Eventually I grew to like being part of a team even more than I enjoyed being on my own, and couldn’t imagine ever being in the mountains without those guys. In effect, I’d banished my solo hiking boots to the back of the closet– with no plans to use them ever again.
Then there came a day some years later when I tried to put those old boots on again, and was alarmed that they didn’t fit anymore. I’d become so accustomed to the companionship, so dependent on the collaboration, that I now found myself hesitant to travel anywhere alone.
The trip in question wasn’t even a dangerous one. Nor was it challenging or something that required teamwork. It was a wimpy little car camping weekend in a national park that I’d visited a dozen times before—three of those times by myself! And here I was actually nervous about going. Can you believe that? I ended up inviting my younger brother along to keep me company.
My further travels with him in the months that followed revealed an even deeper sense of dependency. I found myself deferring to him as a matter of habit; second-guessing my own judgment.
I couldn’t believe things had sunk to this point; how much self-confidence I’d managed to lose in just a few years.
I knew I needed to do something—and soon. I had to turn things around before I found myself needing a guide to make it to the neighborhood 7-Eleven. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t about to give up traveling with my brothers. But I needed to be OK by myself again.
Thus began my quest to re-connect with my solo self; to re-establish my confidence and self esteem in the outdoors. The result of this quest was a project I called The Seven Solo Journeys. I originally wanted to call them the Seven Solo Sojourns, envisioning exotic camel expeditions across the Sahara or spiritual pilgrimages along the legendary Silk Road. But despite popular misuse, I knew that a sojourn was a stay, a stopover—not a journey. Too bad. I really loved that triple alliteration.
Anyway, my plan over the next several years was this: to embark on a series of solo adventures in escalating order of commitment, duration, difficulty and risk. The idea was that each one would provide the basis for the next: seven ascending steps toward my ultimate goal. One of the requirements of the Seven Solos was that I venture into New Territory– places I’d never been before; I needed to be totally out of my comfort zone for this to work. To get things rolling, I’d start with something quick and easy— and then pick up momentum from there.
It was late November but I didn’t care. I was so hungry to get started on the Seven Solos that I didn’t want to wait around until next spring. So two days before Thanksgiving, when I’d normally be anticipating a long weekend of family and pumpkin pie, I found myself on the road heading north. My destination: Mount Shasta, the snowy peak I’d scaled every summer with my brothers for the past fifteen years. (By going somewhere as familiar as Shasta, it would seem that I was already violating one of my Seven Solos rules, but there was a new twist this time around.)
I wouldn’t be climbing. Instead of boots, crampons and ice axe, I’d brought along a bicycle. I wanted to try something radical: to ride from the town at the foot of the mountain up to the 7,000-foot trailhead on the southern face where the standard climbing route began. I have to admit I’d never heard of a single person attempting this before. I wasn’t sure if it was even a good idea. But what the hell; I wanted to try it.
My plan was to spend a night on the mountain beforehand to acclimatize for the ride, pitching a tent at the same 7,000-foot trailhead that was to be my eventual biking destination. The next morning I’d drive back down to town, park my truck and begin biking up the mountain by way of the same 14 mile paved road.
I wasn’t concerned about the elevation per se. I’d been far higher on foot numerous times in the past– twice to nearly 19,000 feet. (Hell, backpacking doesn’t even start to get good until you get above 8,000.) But I’d never taken a bike beyond 3500, so I had no idea how this was going to work out. That’s what intrigued me.
After a five-hour drive, I arrived at the trailhead parking area on Tuesday afternoon—two days before Thanksgiving. Bunny Flat, the starting point of many of my Shasta climbs, was a familiar place: a gently sloped clearing in the forest populated by scattered red firs and the occasional Manzanita bush. The light blanket of snow on the ground wasn’t the least bit unusual. But this time it wasn’t the fading remnants from the previous winter, but the precursor of the one that was fast approaching. So it wasn’t the snow that illustrated the questionable timing of this trip. It was the cars.
Instead of the usual fifty or more commonly seen during the summer climbing season, there were only a dozen vehicles parked here now. The old place sure looked quiet. I didn’t realize how this one difference would come to affect my entire evening.
As the afternoon progressed, I watched as numerous people came and went—curious day hikers and families with kids eager to play in the snow; not the usual climbing crowd I was accustomed to. I set up my tent and started to prepare an early dinner. One by one, as the autumn sun began to set early behind the mountain, the owners of these parked vehicles appeared and eventually drove off down the road toward town. With each departure I felt a bit saddened, as if I was the last guest to leave a party. Then something occurred to me.
Though I’d been on numerous outdoor trips on my own before, there’d always been a few people nearby– someone in the next campsite; passing hikers on the trail, etc. Even the handful of solo Shasta climbs hadn’t been in total solitude; there’d always been a few fellow climbers within sight. As the evening drew nearer, I was struck with the realization that this might be my first night completely alone in the woods. Wait a minute, I thought to myself, that can’t be right. I ran through the dozens of trips in my head again to be sure, convinced that I’d done this at least once before. But I hadn’t. This really was my first time.
I have to admit I wasn’t prepared for this revelation. Despite being a “full grown adult” with years of outdoor experience, I found myself unexpectedly nervous about being up here alone. On paper, it didn’t make a bit of sense. I’d climbed this mountain nearly twenty times over the years under a variety of challenging conditions: gale-force winds, disorienting whiteouts, lightning and thunderstorms, windblown ice, VW-sized falling rocks, frozen 3 AM departures, even getting lost— not to mention four ascents on my own. Hell, I’d been here on Shasta just five months earlier, climbing the deserted eastern face of the mountain with my brothers. And now I was nervous about camping in the freakin’ parking lot! Good God; I needed this trip more than I realized.
By now, most of the cars had left, leaving only three vehicles besides my own: a van, a pick-up truck and an SUV. In contrast to the family sedans I’d seen earlier, it seemed clear that these belonged to climbers, all of whom were presently somewhere up on the mountain. Though I was technically alone at this trailhead, the thought of those distant climbers gave me a bit of reassurance. It was rather silly, but just knowing that other people were up there somewhere made me feel better about my wimpy little car-camping episode here at the edge of the asphalt. Those three empty vehicles became symbols; they became my surrogate companions. As long as they remained there, I said to myself, I’d be OK.
It was getting dark and the temperature was dropping quickly, so I climbed into my tent and settled in for the night. Not long afterward I heard the sound of distant voices. Someone was approaching. Whoever it was took a while to arrive so I lay in my sleeping bag listening. When it was evident that they had reached the parking area, I shot out of bed, unzipped the tent door and peered outside. Sure enough, two people were returning from the mountain. By the way they were dressed it appeared they were day hikers who had made the hour-long trip to Horse Camp at 8,000 feet, a mile up the trail. I was hoping that they might stick around, but they had other plans. Within ten minutes they had warmed up their vehicle and motored off down the road. OK, I thought to myself, there’s still two groups up there. I’m sure they’ll be sticking around.
Another half hour went by. I still couldn’t sleep. I lay there staring up at the ceiling, listening to the November breeze playing with the tent flaps outside. Within another 45 minutes, the next group made their appearance. This time, they were nearly to their truck before I heard them. Once again, I hopped up and peered out from the doorway of the tent. There were three climbers this time, fully laden with gear. Whether they had made a one-day summit dash or had been on the mountain for several days, they were clearly finished with their climb. Again, I had hopes– that they were too tired to drive all the way home in the dark, and would spend the night in their vehicle. But it wasn’t long before they had stashed their gear in the back of their truck and drove on down the mountain toward town.
There was now only one vehicle left in the parking area besides mine. It was so late by this time that I figured no one would still be making their way off the mountain. Most likely these remaining climbers were safely tucked into their tent for the night—perhaps on some rocky ridge, since it was currently avalanche season. It comforted me to think of them hunkered down on the mountain like I was. Maybe now I could get some sleep. I rolled over and lay back down. But it wasn’t easy drifting off.
Part 2 of 2
The solitude began to work its way with me. For a while, I was convinced that the rustling of the wind on the tent was some sort of animal. I kept stopping to listen. But I knew it was just the wind. As I continued to lie there, a host of other visions began to visit me. It was as if I’d reverted back to childhood, where every unidentified noise in the dark became a monster of some kind. That’s the thing about sleeping out in the woods. With so little ambient noise, everything you hear is magnified. A squirrel rustling around in the bushes sounds like a deer. A deer sounds like a bear. And a bear sounds like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
So here at the seasoned age of 48, I found myself suffering from a slight case of the Dark Woods Heebie-Jeebies. I didn’t really think anything bad was going to happen to me, but the pervasive unease kept me from relaxing enough to fall asleep. As a result, I continued to lie awake as my imagination began feeding that unease.
I realize one could easily snicker at a full grown man letting his imagination get the better of him, but until you’ve spent a night alone in the absolute solitude of the wilderness, you can’t understand the seductive power of that world; how even rational thought can be subject to coercion. And I never realized until then how my assumed courage in the outdoors was largely dependent on the presence of travel companions. It’s easy to be brave when you’ve got your gang with you.
At this point several exaggerated scenarios began vying for my attention. Each one of them was outrageously improbable, but at the same time was impossible to shake off. Initially, these thoughts were filled with various wild animals: bears, cougars, wolves, even packs of wild pigs. Shielded by nothing more than a tent, I was rather vulnerable out in the open. I knew that a thin layer of nylon offered little protection against determined fangs and claws. (Somehow I’d forgotten that in all my years of climbing Shasta, I’d yet to see evidence of anything larger than a ground squirrel living here.)
My imaginings began to escalate. Now I started thinking about human threats. What if someone was lurking out there in the dark? Summer camp spook stories from my adolescence inched back into my consciousness as I envisioned psychotic ax murderers and disgruntled hillbillies wandering the woods searching for solitary victims. I even found myself rehearsing a getaway plan to reach my truck quickly in case I actually needed to leave.
Periodically finding myself laughing at these ludicrous imaginings, I made more than a few attempts to settle back in and get to sleep. Yet getting comfortable enough to sleep on the ground was always my biggest challenge in the mountains. There hasn’t been a single backpacking or climbing trip where I was able to fall asleep in less than an hour or two. With middle-aged shoulders and hips weary from carrying a forty pound pack on the trail, it’s hard to find a position that doesn’t hurt. I’d frequently find myself spinning like a human rotisserie as I rolled from one position to another, trying to get comfortable. Tonight however, I couldn’t blame skimpy bedding or rocky ground. I’d brought along plenty of padding from home, so physically I was quite comfortable. It was my head that was keeping me awake tonight.
After that, further imaginings began to brew. This time, they stretched farther into the realm of fantasy. Anyone who’s spent time in the Pacific Northwest has heard the tales about Bigfoot, the mysterious nine foot tall ape-like creature that haunts the darkened woods of far Northern California. Although Mount Shasta is better known for two other species of mythological creatures, the Lemurians and the Yaktavians, I couldn’t help wondering if something large and hairy might be lurking out there as well. But before I could put these creatures out of my head, a more serious concern crept in.
This 14,000-foot volcano has a history of attracting more than mountain climbers. Mount Shasta has long been associated with extra-terrestrial beings. Believers from hundreds of miles around routinely flock to this prominent landmark to welcome, worship and watch for the arrival of spaceships from outside our galaxy. It has something to do with the unique magnetic forces within the mountain that supposedly guide aliens to this mystical place like a homing beacon. I used to think of these people as a bunch of crackpots, but now I wasn’t so sure. With so many faithful followers, it seemed plausible that there might be some truth to these stories.
Incidentally, alien invasions had been one of my deepest terrors as a small child (something my older brother Ken did his best to promote.) What if one of these spaceships was to land here looking for solitary subjects to abduct and study? Even my ax murderer escape plan couldn’t protect me from spaceships, tractor beams and high-powered search beacons. (In all my worst childhood nightmares, the alien ships are hovering silently outside the building, looking for me with bright searchlights.)
For God’s sake– I had to stop this shit. I’d camped at this spot more than a dozen times over the past fifteen years, both with and without companions. And I’d never gotten as much as a bee sting. Why the hell did I think that tonight would be any different, simply because I was the only person up here? I laughed at myself again for being so infantile and lay back down. Alien invasions?! Give me a break.
But just as I was settling into my sleeping bag, I looked up. An intense beam of blue light suddenly appeared on the wall of my tent, barely two feet from my face. It hovered there like a giant eye for several seconds– cool, silent, mysterious. Then the light began to flicker—shimmering as if it was alive. I stopped breathing, convinced that the worst of my imaginings had now come true: the aliens had found me. There was no desire to get up and peer outside the tent this time. I didn’t want to see what was out there. I was frozen. Then I heard the voices…
They were human. Good God. It was only the remaining climbers returning from the mountain. I sprang up and unzipped the door again, relieved to see members of my own species approaching. What a dork I’d been; freaking out at the sight of a high-tech headlamp.
This relief didn’t comfort me for long as I realized that the final group of people on the mountain was now leaving, just as all of the others had. Once again, I hoped they were planning to sleep in their vehicle after such a late arrival. But it simply was not to be. No one wanted to stay up here tonight.
Ten minutes later, they’d shed their boots and packs, loaded up their SUV and started the engine. A few moments later, I watched their car slip out of sight down the darkened tree-lined roadway, their headlight beams shrinking in the distance. When the reassuring hum of their engine faded into silence, I knew I was really alone. There was no one else left.
It’s nearly impossible to describe the feeling I had as I lay there in my tent, knowing that I was the only human being on the slopes of Mount Shasta right then. Everyone else was either safely at home or on their way there. I began to wonder if I should be here myself on this forgotten November night. Should anybody be here on such a night?
Well this was it. I’d finally reached the moment of truth. I’d come here with the expressed intention of being alone. And this was only the first of the Seven Solos: the easiest one by far. The remaining trips were only going to get tougher. It would be pretty pathetic if I found that I couldn’t handle it already.
So after fighting it for so long, I finally made peace with my solitude. It really wasn’t that hard. Ironically, the anticipation had been far worse than the reality. I realized the toughest part was clinging to things that I had no control over— in this case, the other people on the mountain. As those things had continued to slip away, I sank deeper into unease. But now, I was alone and I was OK about it. I’d get some sleep and tackle my bike ride in the morning.
Then sometime later, I heard the unmistakable sound of a car coming up the road. I jumped up again to take a look. When the driver pulled into a parking space and shut off his engine, I had no way of knowing if he was planning to start hiking now or was waiting for friends to join him later. It didn’t matter. Knowing only that he was staying put for the time being, I laid back and felt the immediate drug of sleepiness oozing into my veins. I knew right there I’d be falling asleep very soon. Within a few minutes, I was out.
The ultimate irony of this trip was that the grueling thin-air bike ride I’d come here for was hardly grueling at all. I cruised up the mountain in about two and a half hours with no problem. I was never even short of breath. And when I reached 7,000 feet, I was ready for more. Man– that would’ve been a boring story to write: no struggle, no uncertainty, no drama.
But as the first installment of the Seven Solos, this little trip did produce its intended result: setting me up for the next one. Not long afterward, I set out alone into the wilderness again for my next solo adventure—this time an overnight backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada on what turned out to be Opening Day of deer season (Guns and hunters and beer—oh my!) Let’s just say that I was a bit outnumbered. But that’s a story for another time. Sweet dreams, fellow campers.
Copyright © 2017 by Eric Mannshardt and I Didn’t Climb Everest.net. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author is strictly prohibited.
Please Share on Facebook and Twitter