TURNING AROUND IS UNDERRATED


I realized at 1:30 pm that we were over 3 miles from the trailhead with all our work gear and still going further away. We had to hike out at some point and drive home, making for a long day, and I was beginning to think I needed to say something to the crew leader.  Some leaders have a good sense of time on trail; others seem to be able to work non-stop all day. I ran into both kinds in medicine, too, and the group with whom I practiced was full of the latter, which is one reason why I ultimately left. I’ll admit it; I get tired, I get hungry, and I can’t go-go-go for 12 hours.

The four of us had done good work, cutting out two dozen blowdowns on the trail to the west side of the Erma Bell Lakes, a trio of lakes in a beautiful forest due north of Waldo Lake. But it had been rainy, temperature in the upper 40s, and at lunch I had cooled down. My wet gloves did not help.  I was saving the dry ones for later.  I at least brought a wool hat to use during lunch, but I had the hard hat back on, and cutting out two small logs had only slightly warmed me up.

We ascended another 100 vertical feet into snow patches and at a trail junction held a powwow. It was obvious the loop the leader wanted to do was out of the question, but he wanted to go on to a second junction with the trail up the east side of the Erma Bells.  I committed to the 0.8 miles to the junction and hoped to arrive no later than 2.  

Logs like this that fall along the trail often require multiple cuts. Between Middle and Lower Erma Bell Lakes, Three Sisters Wilderness,
May 2021. Once the second cut was made, the four of us pushed the log (600-800 pounds) to one side of the trail using our legs.

Within 200 yards, we had encountered more snow and another blowdown. This section was going to take longer than 30 minutes.  One of the others, Sig, and I cut out the obstruction and pushed it with our legs off the trail into the snow. He commented to me that walking in snow was going to slow us down.  I thought that it would also cool our feet, which isn’t what I wanted, especially since they were finally warm.

About an eighth of a mile from the junction, I started walking on snow the whole time. The other two members of the crew stopped and said they wanted to go on to the junction and up the east side back to the vehicles.  I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t know the trail, there would be snow for at least the next half mile or even more (I would later learn the trail would remain at the snow level for about a mile and a half), and unknown numbers of blowdowns would be an issue.  They would scout the trail, but that would slow them down even more. This was a long day, I was tired, and warmth required me to keep moving–preferably towards the trailhead.

I was concerned when the leader said his GPS had us at 6 miles in. Mine said 3.8, and a sign I had read at the beginning said our hoped destination was 4.5 miles. My GPS, map, and sense all confirmed each other. He was operating with a faulty GPS.  Since we wouldn’t finish the trail, I suggested we come back another day and log out the eastern side of the trail and the far southern end of the loop.  That was thought to be reasonable, but we ended up going our separate ways, Sig and I back the way we came; the other two’s continuing on around.

They were experienced and good hikers, but it was late in the day and they were tired, too, whether or not they appreciated it.  I was back at the car in an hour and a half, Sig a few minutes later. We knew the trail, we knew it was clear.  He was going to wait for them; as assistant crew leader, he let me leave.  By then, I was warm, mostly dry, and just tired, but not unduly so.

My decision was right and smart.  The other two, who knew the trail, were in good shape and did not have any problems. We each made our choices.  They did encounter deep snow and at least 40 various sized blowdowns. I would not have enjoyed dealing with that.

I’m not afraid of turning around. I did it on the hike to Young’s Rock a few years ago when I encountered a huge blowdown with drop-offs on one side and a cliff on the other, all snow-covered. I looked at all options to go over it and finally decided to turn around and head back.  It was a good decision. One day this past winter on snowshoes, I turned around and retraced my steps, not finishing a loop. That was the right decision, too. Only twice can I remember stopping and checking the situation before deciding to continue. Once was my first hike on Obsidian Loop, when I was in a snow field and actually took a few steps back before turning around and going on. I had a GPS for the first time and realized I could have my track traced rather than turn on the instrument and see where I was. I had a tough hike, six consecutive miles off (but near) the trail, but I completed the loop—without snowshoes. It was a great hike but not the smartest thing I have done.

Blowdowns blocking the route, Young’s Rock Willamette NF, April 2016. My walking stick is about 1.3 m in length. The log was cut out about a month later.
Small Lake on Obsidian Loop (7000′ or 2100 m.), where I was probably the first to see it that season. Getting away with something doesn’t mean it was safe. Obsidian Loop, July 3, 2014.

The second was doing Duffy Loop, which the map said was 19 miles but was actually 23.1.  At 8 miles, I realized the GPS was either over-reading the mileage or the map was wrong. I sat and decided what to do and decided to continue. It was a long day. I had lunch at the 13 mile mark in a nice woods and watched my water carefully.  The problem with that approach is that water needs to be drunk, not conserved, on a hot day.  The west side of the loop back to the main trail was in an old burn and had blowdowns and no shade. I got back to the car where fortunately I had water and drank heavily.

I should have turned around.  The other mistake I made was not to stop and drink out of a stream. I risked giardia, but it would not have been dumb.  Now I add a water purifier to my pack along with chlorine tablets.  

I don’t regret the times I turned around. Either I didn’t have the legs that day, I had a bad map, or trail conditions were worse than expected.  Trail not yet walked is seldom flat with no obstructions. There are instances where feeling like one has to do the distance is akin to summit fever of mountaineers. I have endurance, but I am old and have nothing to prove and a lot to hurt.

I’ve been accused of being too analytical and neither enjoying the hike nor the view.  When I am in the woods, I do monitor myself, the GPS, the map, the sky, and the conditions. I can’t exclude the possibility of an unexpected medical problem, but that’s what InReach is for.  I can exclude as much as possible getting lost or in over my head.  I know many in Search and Rescue. I don’t want to have them go out there to rescue me from my own sins.

For the record, I identify wildflowers, birds, and can describe the trail a year later. I also know whether I want to do the hike again. Obsidian Loop I’ve hiked 11 times; Duffy Loop I will never hike again.

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