To Hike Alone

Fall seven times, stand up eight. ~Japanese Proverb

One of my favorite things about living in the Pacific Northwest is the scenery. The mountains, the skies, the Puget Sound, all these things and more provide the perfect backdrop to my life. As a traveler and adventurer, I always stay busy hiking or kayaking around the area. 

Just the other day, I decided to reunite with nature and go for a jaunt on Blanchard Mountain in northern Washington. According to my hiking guidebook, the giant boulders, bat caves and fabulous views on Oyster Dome are well worth the steep 6.5 mile hike. Just what I needed to test my endurance.

After a 1.5 hour drive, I parked my car and started my route on the Pacific Northwest Trail just off State Route 11 (Chuckanut Drive). There were a few people along the trail, but for the most part, it was a pleasant and quiet hike. Even though it wasn’t snowing, the 1,900 foot elevation gain certainly made it cold as I neared the top. After a few hours, I decided to take a break near an ice-age interpretive sign by the Talus Trail junction. I climbed on top a boulder to take some photos and greeted a young couple doing the same – their names, Christina and Anthony.

As they went on their way, I sat by myself enjoying the view. I didn’t stay too long as I was losing light and it was getting colder. It was about 10 minutes later when I started my way down off the boulder that I took one step to the left and SNAP! I fell in a split position with my right foot bent 90 degrees at the ankle. The snap was loud and it hurt like hell. I started to yell for help. Fortunately, Christina and Anthony hadn’t gotten too far away and responded. When they arrived, they climbed back on the boulder and managed to get me down, but that was as far as I would go. Walking myself out of there was out of the question.

This was the last thing I needed.

Stranded on a mountain, unable to move. A person’s worst nightmare.

There were a million things running through my mind.

It was rather fortuitous that Christina was carrying a GPS device. She later told me that she was conducting a project for her university class on satellite tracking. Divine intervention, huh? We both tried using our phones to call 911, but with spotty coverage and our batteries draining it was becoming increasingly difficult, so in one short exchange, Christina managed to give the GPS coordinates to a 911 responder.

Anthony, worried about how badly I was shaking, started back down the trail to get some blankets from his car. Christina stayed with me watching over the phones and keeping my mind off the pain with light conversation. It was well over an hour before the first crew made it to us. They bandaged my ankle and started to build a fire. The second crew brought a litter (rescue basket) strapped me inside, and placed my ankle in a vacuum splint. The third crew, which consisted of 15 volunteer firefighters and EMT’s were the people who did the actual grunt work.

  

Let me tell ya’ these guys worked fast!

By this point I was going into shock, and that together with the onset of hypothermia was not a good combination. They placed heat packs underneath my armpits and wrapped me in a waterproof down sleeping bag. After surveying the terrain and calculating how much rope they needed to belay me down the first part of the trail, we started our descent off the mountain. There was a “brake team” in the back and “survey team” in the front, along with the team that carried me on the sides. They took turns, changed positions, rested, and swapped between rope and wheel–all this with headlamps and night-vision goggles.

It was quite the task force and a comical bunch too! Cracking jokes and making fun of the situation at my expense was the best way to keep my mind off the situation, I’m sure. 🙂 When they found out I was alone and managing rather calmly despite the excruciating pain, they called me a “badass!” – A compliment in my book! 😀

Six hours later, around 8 p.m. after the team warded off a bear somewhere in there, I reunited with the first crew again and shuttled in an ambulance to Skagit Valley Hospital. A series of X-rays confirmed that I did indeed break my ankle. An oblique break in the fibula, to be exact. I’ll be out for the next six weeks with a follow up in two weeks to determine if I’ll need surgery.

It’s hard to get around on crutches and as usual, you never realize just how much you take your body for granted until you can’t use it properly. As for me, not being able to walk has certainly made a difference in my daily functions and I’m not even gonna’ get started on the crazy side effects of Vicodin! I’m on my own most days, but thankful for the friends and strangers who’ve sacrificed their time helping me out — just proof of the people worth keeping in your life.

When I think back on it all, I laugh at how I manage to find myself in such predicaments. This experience hasn’t discouraged me from hiking solo again…I mean, this is what I do! I gotta’ live life! Although this does mean I won’t be wearing my Manolo Blahniks for a while.

Bummer.

   

Sometimes you gotta lose in life, but it’s gonna be alright.

Two days in solitude out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest can do wonders for the psyche. The need to be outdoors and one with nature is an absolute necessity in my life. I lose myself in a world of nothingness undisturbed by everyday distractions and return to the hectic life a renewed being. Whenever difficult situations kick me in the butt, I find that solitude coupled with nature, heals my soul.

While this year has been filled with terrific blessings, I’ve been hit with a couple of curve balls lately and it always gets me thinking about life’s greatest mysteries and the reasons why things happen the way they do. Recently loss has been at the forefront of my mind. There’s actual loss and fear of loss and my fear of losing something special and dear to me actually happened only a few days ago. It’s not like I’ve not experienced loss before –I’ve lost family, friends, lovers, and jobs. Heck, I’ve even come close to losing my own life a time or two!

As a matter of fact, a few near death experiences that come to mind are a couple of pretty bad car accidents, severe food poisoning that left me passed out on the bathroom floor, and narrowly escaping the exit door on my church bus after it caught on fire in the middle of the night on our way home from a youth retreat many, many years ago.

Some bigger incidents include the time I suffered a heatstroke and nearly fainted after a 23 mile trek in the Grand Canyon. Another moment was on the Olympic trail when I crashed my mountain bike just a few feet short of a cliff that plunged about 100 ft. straight down into rocks and broken tree limbs. Whew! That one freaked me out, the thought of being impaled by a branch was just a little too gruesome for me. At least with heatstroke I would’ve just slipped away into the abyss. Anyway, I walked away with a cut to my right calf, thanks to the pedal that wedged itself in my leg, massive bruises, and an extraordinary soreness all over my body that lingered for three days.

And if that wasn’t enough, two of the most harrowing and life-threatening moments were during my rafting guide training on the Wenatchee River. The first time I fell overboard, the wind gusts were so strong that the rescue line thrown by my teammates went in one direction while the rapids took me in another. I was saved by one of the trainers kayaking behind us as she paddled fiercely towards me screaming at me to grab the front of her kayak. With the swift rapids and 50 degree water, it was either drowning or dying of hypothermia. EEP!

On another day, with an unusually high water level at 19,000cfs, my team hit a massive wall of water that plunged four of us into the rapids. I felt my body violently spinning and tumbling beneath the waves.  As I surfaced, I was so incredibly weak and disoriented; I couldn’t grab the line on the raft. My teammates, fearing I would drown, grabbed onto my life jacket and held me close to the raft until they were able to pull me in. My head felt like it was going to explode and I was shaking uncontrollably and then came the vomiting…Blech! Needless to say, I ended up in the ER having suffered a concussion and severe whiplash. That ordeal had me in a neck brace for two weeks and six weeks of physical therapy. To this day, I can still feel the stiffness from time to time.

Yep, I’ve come close to losing my life several times and God knows why I’m still here. Yet, I’m reminded that loss, whether physical or emotional is inevitable and that loss is painful because it teaches us to love–to love life, people, family, friends, your dog…whatever. Maybe these reflections on my near death experiences are to remind me that if I can survive those terrifying events, I will survive this recent one. Some losses are bigger than others and some losses are permanent while others are only temporary. I know that my recent loss is only temporary and things have a funny way of coming back around. Sometimes you gotta lose in life, but in the end, it’s gonna be alright.