Lord, I Was Born a Rumblin’ Man

trepidation n. The feeling of fear or anxiety that something may happen.

Over the years I’ve spent in Montana, I’ve slowly accumulated a little list of things I want to hike, but have, for one reason or another, failed to do.  As of now, the list consists of three items: 1) Triple Divide Peak- One of three points in the entire world where rainwater will wash away to three different oceans.  This peak has eluded me no less than three times, but that’s for another post. 2) Triple Falls- Montana has a fascination with Triple things, I guess.  This well-guarded secret of Glacier National Park is another location that eluded me on the one occasion I went searching for it.  After hours of circling aimlessly around the Hanging Gardens behind the Logan’s Pass Visitor Center, I was forced to give up and return to the touristy trail with my tail between my legs to be chewed out by retired Floridians for going off trail.  This summer, I will find it. 3) Holland Peak- Unlike the former two items, Holland Peak is not actually one I had already tried and failed to do.  It is merely the highest peak in the Swan Mountain Range, and by nature of it being so, has always been something I have wanted to conquer.  Summiting for the sake of doing so; peakbagger mentality at its finest.

When the Monday that kicked off Chris's and my long week off together (though I still worked most nights), I decided that it was time to finally cross one of those items off my list.  We were doing Holland Peak.  After promising Chris who wasn’t “feeling up to a big hike” that day that the peak was only 4.5 miles in, a petty distance I figured we could cover in a couple hours tops, he agreed.  But as I frequently do, I overestimated my abilities and underestimated the situation, but I wouldn’t discover that until it was too late.  Due to the small mileage of the hike, we took our time getting ready and enjoyed a leisurely morning before finally leaving the house shortly before noon. 

Chris and I have the impalpable ability of personifying the adage “what can go wrong, will go wrong”.  We are a living testament to Murphy’s Law.  About 45 minutes into the hour long drive, watching my gas gauge dip lower and lower toward E, I came up on the small highway-side gas station I had been counting on to get gas.  Unbeknownst to me, it had burned down, leaving me shit out of luck, with not nearly enough gas to make it to the next town of Seeley about forty miles down the highway.  The killer was that Chris had known it had burned down, but he hadn't known that I had been counting on getting gas there.

We only had one option: keep driving. When we got to Rumble Creek road, my gaslight came on.  My instinct was do what I usually do: ignore my problems and let future me figure them out.  Surely we could do the hike then figure out the gas problem.  Chris, being the voice of reason, insisted we figure it out before so I could actually have a stress-free hike.  Coincidentally, Chris had been on that very road landscaping at a house a few weeks ago.  Thinking that perhaps the shared experience of fighting wasps with the homeowner might merit us a little bit of help, we headed there only to find he wasn’t home.  The only option we had was to head back to the highway.  There was a church across the highway from this road.  Maybe they would be willing to help us out.  If not, I was prepared to hitch it down the highway to Seeley and back.  That, however, wasn’t necessary when I spotted a woman working outside in her yard.  We pulled the car over, explained the situation, and she gave us a small gas can with nearly two gallons of gas in it: just enough to get me to Seeley.  Once again, my ass was saved by the kindness of strangers and the boldness of asking for help.  We took off, got the gas, refilled her can for her, dropped it back off, and finally made it back to the trailhead.  It was just after 2pm when we finally got on the trail; plenty of time in the day, I told myself.  So long as the hike went as planned, we would be down before dark.  The problem is that things rarely go as planned.  Laurence Gonzalez, in his book Deep Survival (a must read for adventurers of any experience level out there) defines the second rule of survival as, “Everything takes eight times longer than it’s supposed to” and applies that rule most specifically to “wilderness travelers”.

The beginning of the trail was fine: an easy grade that wound its way through shaded forest for the better part of a mile.  Then the trail spliced, one that continued straight to Holland Lake, and the other that splintered off to the left and up.  And up.  And just for a change of pace, a little more up.  Straight up the mountain the trail went, foregoing the idea of switchbacks or anything that might make the climb a little less intense.  I knew this hike was supposed to be steep, but even I hadn’t quite pictured something this steep.  Between the high intensity grade and the loose powdery dirt of which the trail consisted, it was slow going.  What I hoped would only be an hour of the hike turned into two by the time the trail flattened just slightly into an old burn scar below Lower Rumble Lake, the first of three main points to this hike.  At this point, we ran into a trail runner who claimed he had just been at the peak.  Later, I would look back on this encounter and wonder how he looked so damn chipper after it.  He promised us that there was only a little bit more climbing (again, a retrospective laughing point) and jogged on his merry way.

Look how happy we still look.  Oh, how naive we were.

Look how happy we still look.  Oh, how naive we were.

Lower Rumble Lake is undeniably pretty.  If you can handle the unrelenting and exhausting trail with camping gear strapped to your back, then it would be a gorgeous little lake on which to camp, as some people were doing.  For just a second as we stood on the shore surveying the bright blue water that melted into a sudden wall of stratified cobalt blue and dusty orange shale, we entertained the idea of maybe coming back to do just that.  This view had been worth it.

Then the hike got even harder.  After a deceptively short 400m of relatively flat trail around the lake, the trail faded into a loose shale slide that took a steep charge upwards once again.  The further up we went, the smaller the shale got until we were skittering and shuffling up a scree slope that swallowed our feet with every step.  For every two feet we gained upwards, it felt like we slid backwards three.  Finally, we managed to use a steep shale cliff to the right to brace ourselves with our hands and make it to Upper Rumble Lake, similar to its lower kin but slightly larger and far more secluded.  In fact, we were the only ones there. After the effort it took to get there, that was hardly a surprise.

We didn’t have time to stop for any longer than it took to refill our water bottles at the lake; our eyes were set instead on the ominous cliff rising from the far lakeshore, until it finally ceased in a point that stabbed into the sky: Holland Peak. Thankfully, that wasn’t our route, though that face has supposedly been climbed.  I can hardly see how, though, given the steep scree slide that precedes the actual wall of rock.  In this case, the approach looked harder than the climb.  Instead, we tightened our boot laces and headed up the south side ascent that would actually lead us to the peak of the adjacent mountain, from which we would need to cross the notch between to get to Holland.  Easier said than done.  The first peak alone felt like it went on and on, and I not only fought the elevation gain but an intense burning in my bladder from dehydration.

"Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion." -Robert Macfarlane

It finally started to subside just as we hit the ridge walk between the two summits.  That or I just stopped focusing on it because all I could focus on was the careful placement of my feet along the knife-like ridge. To the left, the cliff dropped off straight down into Rumble Lake; to the right, the rock sheered at a sharp downward angle just enough that a slip down it would leave you tumbling into the valley far below.  In other words, one mistake and we were goners.  Between the wind, the unsteady rock, and our own fatigue, we had to be extremely careful.

My concentration face is just the cutest.

My concentration face is just the cutest.

Finally, we stepped off that last slab of the ridge and onto Holland itself.  Just one more push to the peak, we told ourselves.  But one more, became two then three as we ran into false summit after false summit.  Just as I was about to collapse from frustration and exhaustion, I saw Chris ahead of me stop and sit down.  He beckoned me onward toward the flat section just above him.  “You be the first one to summit,” he said. 

“No, go on.  You beat me to it.”

“No, you’re the one who’s always wanted to do this.”  I smiled and stepped past him onto the summit at long last.  I know it’s probably naïve to get as big of a sense of satisfaction from summiting a peak that countless others before me had done.  It wasn’t like I had just finished Everest or something, but I felt a swell of pride nonetheless.  There is no greater feeling than that achieved by summiting a mountain.  When the world opens up around you on all sides and you breathe in that thin mountain air, no matter how tenuously, you feel strong.  I live for that feeling.

So there we were at 9,356 ft., the highest point in the Swan Mountains.  That meant that in four and a half miles (the longest of my life I might add) we had gained around 6,000 feet in elevation.  Not half bad.  It was the hardest hike I had ever done, and I expressed it to Chris, which I think made him feel a bit better.  Despite the struggle to get there, standing on that ridge, looking down at the Swan Valley and the expansive Mission Mountains surrounding us on all sides, it felt worth it.  Realizing we hadn’t eaten much at all that day, especially for how many calories we had been burning, we ate some leftover deli chicken strips and trail mix and prepped ourselves for the long hike out. 

We had conquered Holland Peak and this monster of a trail.  Now we had a new beast with which to contend: darkness.  Descending from Holland Peak back onto the sharp ridge was slow going since almost all the shale was loose and small.  Going up that was one thing, but going down another more dangerous thing.  We ended up traversing laterally across the mountains, picking our way from static rock to static rock, hoping against hope that we didn’t gain too much momentum in the scree slides between.  The sun was setting by the time we made our way back across the ridge, following a family of mountain goats (or as we call them, “mountain friends”) a few hundred yards ahead of us. The sunset's brilliant shades of bright orange and yellow melding into the purple sky was breathtaking, but maybe that was just the hike and the elevation. 

The peak to the left is Holland Peak.

The peak to the left is Holland Peak.

I couldn’t quite enjoy it as much as I would have liked because we were on a rush against the clock.  I had already come to terms with the fact that we would be night hiking out of here, but I wanted to get back down to Lower Rumble Lake and off all the shale shit before dark.  Shale plus lack of vision equals disaster.  And we almost made it.  After what felt like miles of sliding on our butts down the shale slopes, we made it below Upper Rumble and down to the larger shale hillside just above Lower.  The thing about shale trails, however, is that they’re hard enough to see in the daylight.  In the gloaming light falling on us now, it was all but impossible, and we quickly lost the trail entirely.  Luckily, we knew where it would pick up on the opposite end of the lake, but we still needed to get there. 

In that moment, I knew we had gotten into something over our heads.  Night hiking isn’t so bad if you’re familiar with the terrain, but here, it was the blind leading the blind.  We were vastly unprepared for this downward trek and that realization was a jarring one.  Laurence Gonzalez also writes, “In part, we miscalculate the scale of the places we elect to explore.  And distance means energy, the energy we’ll run out of if we’re not found; the energy is takes to get out.”

The darkness enveloped us and all we had was Chris’ phone flashlight.  Mine had died and I hadn’t thought to bring my headlamp, or tell anyone where we had gone, for that matter.  Rookie mistake after rookie mistake, and each one could very well have cost us our lives.  By virtue of writing this post, you know it didn’t, but that was more out of luck.  Our first stroke of luck that day was the fact that we had cell service, and could thus message Bud, whose basement we were rentingWe explained the situation, where we were, and told him that if we weren’t back by morning, to call search and rescue.  In true Bud fashion, the only response we got was, “Roger that.”

With the small comfort that someone could at least find our bodies in the morning, my mind began spiraling with all the possibilities of what could happen to us.  My grandfather’s stories of mangled hikers and mountain lions all came flooding back as I mentally listed all the dangers of the woods at night.  I am of the belief that a certain degree of fear is healthy.  It wakes you up, keeps you alert and aware of what’s at stake in a situation.  But too much fear isn’t a good thing either; it becomes a fog over any awareness a small dose of it may give you.  Stress erodes our ability to perceive our environment, and thus to react to it.  We see less, hear less, and misinterpret that which we still do.  Chris tried to calm me down, but the problem was that I knew what was out there; he didn’t.  I grew up in these mountains and I knew how to assess my abilities in the face of their strength.  Chris is notoriously fearless, but I was worried that this fearlessness was born of merely a lack of knowledge of these mountains.  I was too afraid, he not enough.  In many ways, it boiled down to a psychological phenomenon known as risk homeostasis, or the level of risk an individual is willing to endure. We negotiate the riskiness of our own actions as a direct result of our assessment of the risk in the environment and how it falls on our risk scale.  Our experiences are what provide us with this mental map to determine what is too risky or too scary.  It’s for this reason that safety precautions and rules are often conversely effective.  Give a man a helmet and head injuries won’t decrease.  He’ll just do something that makes him hit his head harder.

Chris managed to calm me down a bit, at least enough to follow him slowly across the steep side hill above the lake, filled with dense foliage now slick with the rain (that’s right, it was also raining).  The calmer I got, the more foolish I felt for getting so worked up and I kept trying to apologize to Chris for letting it get the best of me; that and for getting us in this mess in the first place.  “It’s fine," he said.  "If you really want, apologize later.  Let’s just focus on getting out of here.”

We eventually picked up on the trail again where it crossed the stream via a fallen log at the far end of Lower Rumble Lake.  We lost the trail a few more minor times going through the burn scar where the grass was high and the path faint, but we always managed to retrace our steps until we found it again.  After that, the trail became pretty obvious, which was at least one thing we no longer needed to worry about.  Now we just needed place careful steps on steep, wet terrain for another two and a half miles.  Oh, and make sure we didn’t get eaten by any wild animals.  Every hundred yards or so, I signaled to Chris in front of me that I would be moving the light away.  “Sweep,” I’d say, and do a full circle around us, looking for any flashing eyes following us in the trees or dense underbrush.  Anytime we heard the slightest of noises, we’d stop, knife and unlocked Bearspray canister brandished high at the ready.  I wasn’t so much worried about bears, but rather mountain lions.  They were the real predators out there.

To make things tenser, lightning began flashing in the distance.  Getting caught in the thunderstorm was the last thing we needed.  There are a lot of aspects of Mother Nature one can overcome, but lightning is not one of them.  Each time I saw a flash, I found myself mentally counting the seconds, doing the math to determine the distance of each strike to see if the storm was getting closer.  It steadily was, but not at a rate that felt immediately threatening.  The entire time, our adrenaline was pumping, canceling out any feelings of pain and hunger we had.  Unfortunately, as we fell into a calm rhythm the closer we got to the bottom, the more that adrenaline subsided and we began to realize how much our knees (and every other part of our bodies) hurt.  And to make matters worse, our limbs began feeling heavier and heavier with fatigue.

After a downhill plod that felt infinitely longer, if possible, than the hike up, we finally reached the original trail fork with the comparatively flat East Foothills Trail #192.  That last mile was cake compared to everything we had just endured, but I have still never in my life felt such instant relief as when the beam of our flashlight reflected on my car headlights.  It was like heroin, or at least what I imagine heroin to be like.  Our watch showed 12:32am.  It had taken us five hours to hike up and five and half down.

The hour-long drive back home wasn’t exactly something to look forward to, but at that point I was just happy to be back in the warm, dry, safe car.  So what if our sandwiches had spoiled and we were starving?  We had ice cream at home (which we at a lot of despite the fact that it was nearly 2am when we got home).  And more than that, we were alive.  It was one of those moments where I could actually feel the gravity of that word.  For as much crazy shit as I do, I haven’t had many moments where I feel like I have actually come face to face with some concept of my own mortality.   It was a humbling experience and because of that, I think it was necessary. 

In two months I’m setting off for South America, and while I tell people I’ll be fine, I do know there are dangerous places there that I can’t afford to go into half-cocked. I move forward in my adventures now knowing what it feels like to be in danger, to be afraid, and how to overcome it and not let that fear defeat me.  Adventuring is like any skill.  It takes years of practice to hone your abilities, and the occasional test to find out just how much you have learned.  And while we can never be perfect, we can always be better.  Survival exposes us for what we really are.  There are very few perfect survivors out there who react just as they should; I am not one of them, as I learned in this relatively minor scenario.  While I flailed around at first, I did eventually regain my head and we got out of the situation, which is what matters.  In terms of survival, I don’t care if I’m perfect, only if I’m adequate.  Much like C’s get degrees, adequacy maintains life.

And the point of practice is not to minimize the risk, but rather minimize the chance of dying because of it.  Again, as Gonzalez writes, “You can’t make adventure safe, for then it’s not adventure.”