Backcountry Buffoon

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How refusing to follow the basic tenets of hiking the backcountry could have turned an innocuous afternoon into injury…or worse.

By Kyle Magin

Stella appeared clownish, grinning.

My lab mix’s black face and Yoda-ears peered down at me from the top of a snow cornice, where she’d laid her head on her front paws to watch me navigate disaster.

“I should take a picture of this,” I thought, and then, re-assessing my handholds, thought better of it.

I was hiking—stupidly, idiotically…/scans thesaurus.com…moronically—by myself in the Sierra Nevada in the early spring, if you don’t count my furry companion. She can’t dial 9-1-1 or go for help (the writers of Lassie were full of shit), so I count her as a backcountry companion in the companionship sense of the word only. The Range of Light in early spring is nothing to screw with. Even in drought years, melting snow turns familiar trails into slippery leg-breakers; even to people who know them pretty well. There are books about what a bad idea it is.

On Friday night I hunted around my friend group for a partner—my girlfriend works four-10s on top of a 35-minute commute to end the week, so she was out for anything starting before the mid-day March Madness tip-offs. A few of my buddies had work commitments, and to be honest, I didn’t try that hard or think about altering my plans once I got a few nos.

I’ll bring you in, dear reader, slightly before the above-mentioned pickle.

We hiked Saturday morning to Mt. Rose (which is technically in the adjoining Carson Range.) The peak sits above Lake Tahoe and is a lovely, strenuous hike in the summer, but nothing your dad can’t do, given half a day, if he’s still on hip No. 1.

Snow is still covering much of the trail, but it’s so well-worn and packed that I only needed my snowshoes for a few hundred yards in the first 2.5 miles. I glanced at my watch and saw we arrived at the portion of the hike where you begin your uphill ascent in just about an hour. We made good time.

Before long we skirted over the top of a deep draw and came to a point where a steep, snowy slope covered the trail for maybe 40 yards.

I should have decided I’d had a good hike and turned it around, maybe hit the pool at the rec center if I still had some life in my legs before settling down to watch basketball for the rest of the day.

All this physical calculus doesn’t come naturally to me—sports where the doing and the thinking are equally strenuous, like climbing or wrestling, have never been my forte—and I quickly felt tired and weak.

But, I’d posted a Facebook photo of the mountain stating my goal to reach the top of it. Twelve people would (probably not) wonder if I’d lost my nerve or got lazy. I involved my ego. So I made up my mind to cross the slope.

With purpose, I kicked my right leg into the snow, bashing a foothold in. I did the same thing with my un-gloved fist to get a handhold. Once I felt secure, I did the same again and pulled myself a few feet from the safety of the trail. I watch a lot of Jeremy Jones mountaineering movies and dumbly thought, “yeah, I can do that, too,” after sitting at a desk for 50 hours a week.

I kicked out and pulled myself into position again and came to OH SHIT moment No. 1 for the day. I was now more than a body length from the trail with nothing below me except for a small tree and rock pile about 10 feet above the bottom of the draw—maybe 60 feet below me. I was anchored into the side of a slope with a daypack full of energy bars, an apple, water bladder, water bottle, treats for my dog and my aluminum-framed snowshoes weighing me down. I was likely doing a pretty dumb thing.

Read more Magin The long-waited and necessary return of the Yellowstone Wolf

As I assessed my options, I jolted back into the moment when I suddenly slid down maybe 6 feet before anchoring myself back into the snow with a few wild leg kicks and a prayer. I looked up to see Stella making that face at me.

I hung off the slope, in trouble.

Since I have the upper body strength of a t-rex, pulling myself back up to the trail was out of the question. I worked out my best solution: down-climb into the draw (still probably 50-ish feet below me) and walk out with my body intact.

I tried to balance myself while reaching my left leg down to kick a new foothold in, rearrange my other holds and do the same with my right foot.

All this physical calculus doesn’t come naturally to me—sports where the doing and the thinking are equally strenuous, like climbing or wrestling, have never been my forte—and I quickly felt tired and weak. I kicked my right foot into the snow, shifted my weight onto that thigh and felt my leg sink into the slope up to my crotch.

I was sweating now, stuck and fuming at myself for getting into this situation. Who hurts themselves on a perfectly sunny spring day? Who would call my mom if something really bad did happen? It’s amazing how quickly my thoughts turned to a pretty dark place mere moments after I confidently decided on my plan of attack.

I hugged myself hard into the slope with freezing fingers and tried to extricate my right leg, which required me to do some hard torqueing to my left in grip-loosening thrusts. When I pulled the leg free it hung in the air for a second before the weight shift pulled down hard on my hands and before I knew it, I was on my ass sliding toward the draw, legs-first.

“OK,” I thought. “At least I see where I’m going.”

For the first ten feet or so I controlled my slide, digging my heels and palms into the snow. Stella appeared on my right side, licking my face. Then I lost control and started hurtling toward the above-mentioned tree and rock pile.

I couldn’t arrest the speed at all. I started saying to myself “Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t… PANIC” as I closed on the tree like one of these new-age 4.4 linebackers.

My last clear thought before impact was that something would break. Running into a tree at an uncontrollable speed would not be good and would maybe result in needing to call out for search and rescue a grand total of 2.5 miles from a trailhead, like a total chump.

Thud.

I nailed the tree and caught its trunk with my inner thighs, and an adjacent rock with my right hip.

Miraculously, I didn’t feel the telltale shooting pain of a break. I didn’t hear a snap. I came to a sudden stop and didn’t notice the blood coming off the heels of my hands and right thigh. It’s funny how gratitude works when you’re expecting to end up on the six o’clock news, the reason for some strapping S&R guy with a sweet taxpayer-supplied jacket/radio/vest/balaclava setup to show up on TV and use my case as his plea for people to never hike alone. A little blood doesn’t seem so bad then.

The trudge out took about two hours. I passed by happy, fit groups of girls in their neon Nike trail shoes, race hats and single water bottles; me looking like someone who had just walked his ass down from the Khumbu icefall to Everest Basecamp.

My thighs and hip look like abstracts of cherry blossom paintings. It hurts to walk. It hurts to sit. Who knows, a few inches to the left or right and I might be testing my insurance plan and cancelling every camping trip I have set for the summer ahead, if not much, much worse.

Hiking by yourself is a sin but not always a cardinal one—as long as you’re telling someone where you’re going and understand the terrain, it’s a pretty low-rent risk. I’ll probably do it again. But pushing on through a bad feeling in the backcountry—past instincts successfully bred into you and handed down over thousands of years—is a uniformly stupid decision.

I never felt stupider, or more selfish, than when I hurtled toward that tree. I’m thankful the bruises are the only physical reminder of the day’s idiocy.

kylelegI

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  1. Kyle: This is your mother. What the heck were you doing? I had that long ago feeling that if this kid is all right after this event I’ll wring his neck!!! Glad you are no worse off than the bruises but they look awful!
    By the way, why do I get the distress calls & dad gets the calls of accomplishment & success?
    Love you to the moon & back. Please be more careful in the future.

  2. dont beat yourself up so badly for going on a solo hike. It’s really quite alright, especially like you said, if you let someone know where you’re going and what time you’ll be back. Mt Rose even has decent cell service in most parts.

    What you learned the kinesthetic, or hard way, was that snow slopes in late spring and summer, or anytime you can’t punch footholds in with your feet, can be purely treacherous. YouTube has quite a few videos of similar unfortunate incidents and those poor souls were not alone based on the fact that someone had a camera along.

    You might have been able to put your snowshoes on to cross safely since the bottom of the snowshoes have crampon points, although they would be somewhat awkward as they aren’t well designed for traversing a slope.

    Better luck next time!

  3. The “S&R guy with a sweet taxpayer-supplied jacket/radio/vest/balaclava” is likely to be a Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue volunteer. They have canceled their main fundraiser, The Great Ski Race, the last 3 out of 4 years due to low snow and could use some help.

    https://www.crowdrise.com/rescuetherescuers2015

    In our 38-year history we have responded to over 300 missions and rescued over 500 people. TNSAR is a non-profit 501c3 100% volunteer organization. We do not charge for our services nor has anyone in our organization ever taken a paycheck. We have no paid staff. We average about a dozen search and rescue missions each year.

  4. John- Thanks so much for what you guys do. I’m glad I didn’t have to call you out and sad that GSR got canceled this year. You guys have great balaclavas.