Monday, January 28, 2013

Rookie Mistakes

I didn't want to hijack Ted's comment section on his post about getting lost in the mountains so I decided to retell some short stories of my own. I haven't ever been in a really bad situation but it's easy to see how things can get much worse. Here are three, including one from this past winter vacation to Hokkaido for skiing.

One of the most memorable was when I hiked into a swamp area back in southern Illinois with my friend in January. There were trails and such so it wasn't anything too crazy to speak of. The initial trail led over a wide river and just to the north east another stream came into the river. You could even walk around on the frozen cypress swamp sections that day. We decided to make a big loop up to a ridge and then come back along the river. The sun was starting to sink as we were coming off the ridge and still had quite a length to go back. We crossed through a flood plain of dead and trampled grass.

The eeriest thing were all the giant turkey vultures flying around around and sitting in the dead tupelo trees. I had never seen so many birds. They were circling us and watching us. We wanted to get out of there as quick as possible. By that point it was getting dark and we had no flash lights. We could see the original bridge we had come across in the faint light but we had made a silly mistake. We forgot that we would need to cross the smaller river to get back to the side that had the bridge. It would be impossible to walk all the way back around in the dark. It was probably more than a 2 hour walk. Fortunately there was a shallow cropping of rocks in the river back about 200 yards. We had no choice but to strip off our shoes and socks to brave that frigid water. It was numbing. I was willing to do anything to correct my mistake though and get back to the car. Looking back it's nothing but a good memory now.

Another time we had heard of some cave in the Shawnee National Forest from a rather eclectic individual. The information was so vague that I was skeptical of finding anything. Yet for some reason, the same friend and I, went looking for it. It was a very humid and hot August day. Even in the depth of the forest canopy it was stifling and the air was still. Whose idea was it to undertake a search for a cave without water on such a day? I can never figure out what got into our heads. We had gone way off the trail, hiking through rolling valleys of steep hills in search of a cave with hardly any directions. Seriously, what a moronic thing to do. As we got far from the original trail the exhaustion from the heat and lack of water started to play with our minds. We no longer wanted to find a silly cave. We wanted out of those suffocating woods.

Was there really any danger that day? I don't know because the body can deal with a lot. I sweat far too much to be called normal, however, so I'm not quite sure. When we turned back to find the trail we kept going into valley after valley. After going over each little hill we expected to see the sweet trail which would take us back out. It was more the heat than anything and no water that started to worry us. That was no situation to be in. Thankfully we kept pressing on until the trail was located a few hours later. A family eating lunch at the trail head took pity on us and gave us giant peaches from a local orchard. Those were some of the best peaches I ever ate.

In December the same friend and I took a ski trip to Hokkaido, Niseko to be exact. The first two days were great. Niseko has some wonderful snow and terrain to ride. One thing that Niseko is known for is the out of bounds territory that they open to the public. This is completely ride at your own risk but since the implementation of the system it decreased the amount of people ducking ropes and doing dangerous stuff. You have to enter through a gate into each of the back country areas. Some of the routes run right along side the main ski trails so you are never far from feeling too insecure. We hit some of the gates over those first two days in the lower sections of the mountains. They had great heaps of fresh snow and was some of the best terrain I had been in to that point.

Being the intrepid adventurers we seem to think we are, we decided it would be a shame not to ride a recommended out of bounds area farther up the mountain. I didn't object to the idea as everything had been good. The thing about the gate system is that once you cross through the ski patrol doesn't go into those areas. A rescue will cost you over 500 dollars. That is more of a deterrent to people than anything else. On the third day we hopped on the lifts to get to the top of the mountain and access the Fujiwara no Sawa area. The day was doomed from the start.

As I was getting off the last life in the morning my ski pole got caught on the hood of the lift. I heard a painful cracking noise and watched as my pole split directly in half. The plastic outer coating left a strand holding it together for the time it took me to get off and meet up with my friend. He and I looked at each other and just laughed. Well, that was unexpected. I called the rental shop owner and he said he would bring me a new pole. I made it down the mountain with my beleaguered pole and exchanged it for a new one. I was very embarrassed and the shop owner was equally surprised it had happened. 20 dollars out of my pocket for the broken pole. It could have been worse. And boy did it get worse. I should have headed the omen then and there.

This time I made it off the lift without a hitch. We had to walk laterally across the mountain to get over to the gate. I somehow ended up a little below where everyone else was hiking across and it took me forever to horizontally walk back up. Eventually we made it through the gate. I felt pretty good but unsure of what to expect for the terrain. We decided to keep heading horizontally across the mountain face to see what kind of line we could ride down. We agreed to round an edge sticking out of the face up ahead and then descend. By now we were very far out from the gate. The only way out of there was down. And once down there was a cat track trail that we would have to hike out on.

My friend was a bit above me as I started to laterally descend the face and I hit a pocket of deep snow. The next moment my body was going forward and I felt my ski come off a good 2 to 3 feet below the surface. My worst fear had come true. That snow was 5 or 6 feet deep and the way my ski had gone in, there was no telling if it had stopped or shot through the soft powder down below. Looking back I should have kept calm and recounted my position before trying to find the ski. In some sense I already felt the ski was gone but here I was in the out of bounds territory, up a high mountain face, with one ski, and long descent through tree laden slopes and hazards. Trust me, it was a long way down and it scared me to think how I would get off that face.

We went to work digging lines across the snow probably 3 or 4 feet deep. I couldn't think of anything else but to find that ski. I felt so embarrassed as people zoomed by digging their skis through the abundant snow. I tried my best to dig and dig. Finally I hit something hard that shook my ski pole. It gave me hope for a brief moment until I found it was nothing but dead sasa and other tree branches. This happened several times over the next hour. I thought I was free and then I was cursed yet again. I can only surmise that the branches or bushes caught my ski in a bad turn of luck. There is no other way it would have come off in such snow.

I gazed back at the ski lift way off in the distance. I looked at the sun slowly dropping in the sky. Not much longer and the gate area would close for the day as well as that lift. We were running out of time to find the ski and I was feeling even more concerned. Because of these facts we decided that we needed to start moving out of the area. I would have to abandon the ski and eat the cost. I already began to imagine the embarrassing conversation with shop owner. My spirit was drained. Even if I made it off that mountain face my ski was lost and getting back down would be another punch in the pride. But I couldn't contemplate that any longer. I needed a way out of there. There was a compacted path that many others had laterally taken across the face that I thought I could walk out on. Yet, it was impossible to move anywhere in the deep snow. When I tried to take a step up my foot just sank deep into the weak structure below. I wasn't going anywhere and it would take far too long to get to the lift. Worse yet is that it would close and be pointless to have spent all the energy getting there.

What other choice did I have? I strapped on my remaining ski and started sliding down the mountain. Now it might have been easy if it was the regular ski area but this was ungroomed back country terrain. So maybe it wasn't that crazy but still a challenge no matter how you look at it. I was determined to get off that mountain face and I wasn't going to have the ski patrol come rescue me for my mistake. Losing the ski was already enough to bear. I had to carefully slide down with my butt on the ski. It was nearly impossible to maneuver safely. I felt like I was prone to breaking or twisting up my legs with one leg locked into the ski. My friend scouted the terrain down the slope as I slowly made my way. My legs were burning. My fleece was getting soaked. Snow was spraying into my face. I was tired from digging and had to get to the bottom where there was a trail we could walk out on. I don't think I ever thought I was in that much danger but I understand much more clearly why those areas are out of bounds. I think I was more ashamed than anything.

But when I finally reached the trail out I ripped off my remaining ski and laid on the ground laughing. Partially because I was happy to get off that part of the mountain injury free and because of how stupid I must have looked scooting down the mountain. Well it was even more humiliating when the ski patrol then took me from a ski resort area to a lift I could ride back down. The operators were wonder why I only had one ski. I wasn't about to tell them why. I was saving that for the shop owner. He gave me a replacement set of skis to go look again for the lost one but it rained the last day and we couldn't go up there again (luckily). I think he was more pained to type the charge for the lost ski into the cash register than I was to pay it. His sympathy was heartfelt. Look on the bright side, I'm alive and I might even get that money back if they find the ski. Just maybe...


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