Why do the biggest adventures always occur on the simplest trips? And why, when I do not return from a trip on time, does my wife call our life insurance agent before she calls Mountain Rescue? These are the questions I ponder.
Don, Dave, and I were going out only for the day, on an easy spring hike to test new snowshoes and work out winter's kinks in our aging bodies. We ended up huddled and shivering under a tree breathing life into a fire that seemed designed to asphyxiate us. What began as a short hike concluded with a Hobson's choice: should we die slowly from hypothermia or die slowly from smoke inhalation?
Having survived the night, I can only say that I did, indeed, inhale. Don and Dave also spent the night fighting cold and smoke, but I am the only one qualified to tell the story. This is because Don and Dave, as things turned out, are navigational morons. Because of this they might not remember things correctly (i.e., quite the way I do), but that is because they have no sense of direction. Unlike them, I never was lost. I knew at all times precisely where we were (somewhere with lots of snow). I came prepared (except for the emergency space blankets that kept them warm), and I kept my composure (only once jumping into the fire to warm up).
We had planned to spend the day on a loop trip in the Cascade Mountains, ending back on the road a mile or two from the car. After a glorious day, we thought our trip was almost over when we reached Melakwa Lake, a small tarn only four miles from the road. Everyone in Seattle, it seems, hikes to Melakwa Lake sometime in their lives. My oldest daughter first made the trip when she was three. There is a wide, maintained Forest Service trail from the lake to the road. This last part of our trip was a no-brainer.
Or at least it should have been. The problem with the trail was that it was buried under several feet of snow. And a bigger problem was that we, not the trip, were the no-brainers.
Sometimes snowy routes have tell-tale footprints from previous travelers that help guide the way. On this day, however, there was nothing beyond the lake but endless hillsides covered with big trees and deep, sun-cupped, old snow. We would have to rely on map and compass to point the way.
That, at least, is what I thought. As I pulled out my map, Don pointed directly west down a river valley and said, "I remember the route. It's this way."
David, peering at his map and compass, pointed south along a hillside traverse: "The route goes this way."
I looked at my map. The buried trail, and the road it would take us to, was directly east.
We had a problem on our hands. Three different guys. Three different directions. Three different strong-willed, pig-headed guys, each of whom soon was convinced of his own directional superiority and his companions' idiocy. The human dynamics of such disagreement must be fascinating, and I am sure someone will write a dissertation about it someday. (Title: Physio-Psychological Conflict Among Navigational Morons." Or, if it is for a social work degree: "War Among the Directionally Challenged.") Each of us was positively sure that his was the right way. We each marshalled whatever support we could muster.
"Just look at the map," I pleaded. As the least experienced member of the crew, I pleaded rather than commanded. "It shows that we have got to go east."
In rebuttal, Dave pointed out the obvious. "There is a cliff to climb over that way. And we know that we have to lose elevation, not gain it."
"C'mon," repeated Don, pointing west. It has got to be this way. I've been here before and I remember." Then he appealed to authority: his own. "Look. I've been up and down these mountains since before you were born. I can feel that this is the right way."
Don was pointing directly toward a fiery-orange setting sun. It sure seemed like west to me. But, while the sun carries some authority, so does Don. And when one is marooned in an ocean of snow and trees, Don's authority carries a certain force. This is because, when it comes to mountains, Don is a Famous Guy. I had discovered this several years before, on my first climb with him and Dave. We were on our approach to Mt. Stuart when Don described an experience he had on the mountain many years ago.
"I was right up around there," he said, pointing to a dramatic wall on Stuart's south side. "Pulling myself up onto a ledge, I reached behind a large boulder with my left arm. The boulder was as big as a car, but I'll be strung and puckered if it didn't start to rock back and forth right there. Next I knew, that big ol' car-rock peeled off the hill and didn't stop moving until it was down around there."
He was pointing to the base of the mountain.
"Are you telling us you pushed a huge boulder over that 2000-foot cliff?" My voice dripped skepticism.
"It was more of a pull than a push," he replied. "And it didn't touch much else but air on the way down." This much was obvious from one look at the mountain.
"Well," piped in Dave, "It's a good thing you didn't hoist your whole body up onto that rock. That would've been one bowel-cleaning ride to the bottom."
We all pondered the sheer terror of that image.
"Wait a minute," I said, regaining my composure, "If you dislodged a big rock like that so easily, that means no one else had been up that route before you."
"That's right," said Don.
"So you did a first ascent?" My skepticism was turning to awe. "On Mt. Stuart?"
"Yep. It was just a minor route."
But I wasn't buying any of this humble bull. "You should be in Fred Beckey's book!" I shot back.
"I am," Don replied.
Now, for big-shot climbers, this may seem like no big deal. But it impressed me to no end. I was hiking with a real mountain man. I felt like I had just met Reinhold Messner. In the span of 15 seconds I was transformed from a skeptic to a blathering sycophant.
"Geez, Don," I cooed, "You are a Famous Guy. Hey Dave, we're climbing with a Goddamned Famous Guy."
"I know," smiled Dave. "A genuine GFG."
This fact was confirmed in precisely three minutes, when we passed a pair of climbers coming off the mountain. As we passed, one of them stopped, put a hand to his mouth in a thoughtful gesture, and -- I swear I am not making this up -- said to Don:
"Say, you're Don Cramer, aren't you?"
"No shit!" I exploded. "You, Don, are a Goddamned Famous Guy!"
Don stopped to talk to this most recent admirer while Dave and I pulled off our packs 50 feet up the trail. "You know, Dave, we are indeed climbing with a Famous Guy," I repeated. I said this about 14 times, letting it sink in.
"Mr. Karpoff," replied Dave. "I have heard you. Everybody close to this mountain has heard you. So would you please now shut up?"
I eventually shut up, but I still was -- and am -- impressed with Don's elevated stature. Which caused me great discomfort when, back at Lake Melakwa, Don pointed in what was clearly, obviously, stupidly, the wrong direction.
"C'mon," he repeated, still pointing to the west, "I see some tracks going this way."
I had to admit that Don's way did look like an easier route than did mine. The direction my compass told us to go was up and over a rocky cliff. It would be so much easier simply to head downhill toward that disappearing sun.
Most of the time, wilderness travel is a primitive, primordial activity. You grunt up steep hills and immerse yourself in the smells of decaying fir branches. Your mind shuts off the useless chatter of your day-to-day urban existence. Writing, driving, computers, and cappacinos have no place in the outdoor world, and slowly they recede from consciousness. There is no compelling reason to understand politics, or carburetors, and the intellectual part of your mind recedes to allow other, quieter parts to grow and expand. Over time, you leave behind your useless people-centered ruminations and allow your body to function more naturally.
This is why a map and compass are both so essential and yet so anomalous in the backcountry. Unlike everything else out there, a map and compass are purely intellectual abstractions. A map is not the actual terrain, but a model of it. A map does not look anything like the real thing. Maps are flat and orderly, made of flimsy paper with neat, straight longitude and latitude lines. The backcountry is a jumble of hard rocks and gnarly bushes on steep, uneven hills. There are no contour lines tracing out the elevations, only endless bumps and hills.
A compass is even more abstract. A needle floating in water points to Magnetic North, a mysterious spot somewhere in the Canadian archipelago. When you get right down to it, a compass is sheer magic. Why, really, does it point to Magnetic North? Just what is Magnetic North anyway? Is it a gigantic magnet lying around? If so, that might explain why it moves over time. Maybe some lugheads push it around every once in a while, when the International North Magnetic Pole Commission is looking the other way.
My point is that using a map and compass in the wilderness is an exercise in mind over matter. To trust them requires a leap of faith -- that the compass is not broken, the map is not wrong, and that your natural instincts may be wrong. You must trust your rational side. To rely on the map and compass, especially when they point toward cliffs, requires sheer force of will to override the body's urges to go the other way.
Don would have none of that. His senses still pointed toward the setting sun. Fighting back the urge to walk downhill, I argued for the cliff route. We ended up choosing Dave's direction -- south -- if for no other reason than his represented a compromise between Don and me. This should, of course, provide proof that any political system based on compromise should be flushed down the toilet. At least when politicians compromise somebody else gets the shaft. When we compromised, however, we doomed ourselves to a cold and uncomfortable evening in the snow.
Following Dave's direction, in no time we were completely lost. Only now night was falling and we had to stop to avoid walking over a cliff. We made camp under a huge fir tree with a root system at its base that promised no end our evening discomfort.
We took stock of the situation. We had plenty of chocolate, so our nutritional needs were satisfied. Don and Dave had emergency space blankets, which they now whipped out to catch some warmth. I glowered enviously through the fire at those shiny sheets of tin foil, my envy rising to anger throughout the night as each shift of weight elicited a metallic crinkling sound that reminded me of my sorry lack of preparation.
Our fire smoldered with wood still caked with snow and ice. It produced thick black gases that aimed straight for a permanent residence inside my lungs. I wheezed and coughed like a life-long three-pack-a-day man, and cursed the plunging thermometer. Here I was in the great outdoors, sucking up more fumes than if I had spent the day chasing city buses.
Occasionally the fire's smoke was too much to bear, and I turned away to gasp at fresh air. This served only to renew the jealousy with which I now regarded my partners, as the cold would creep through my inadequate clothing and shoot straight for my heart. Maybe it would be justifiable homicide, I reasoned, if I took Dave's space blanket: "Only one of us was going to make it, your Honor! It was either him or me. And he deserved to die. We took his directions!"
Don was unusually quiet, and after our fire was going he told us why.
"You know those tracks I thought I saw in the snow?" he said. "Whatever they were, they went straight off a cliff."
Adding to the ambience, I was trying to sit or lie on a tangle of roots. Searching for a flat spot, my gaze landed upon the fire: we had built the fire on the only flat spot around! In that moment a solution to two of my problems crept into my crazed mind: I could be both warm and comfortable if I lay upon the fire! So I did it. I kicked aside the burning logs, swept away the embers, and flopped right on the spot that only moments before cradled our blaze.
Have you ever heard "The Cremation of Sam McGee"? In this Robert Service poem, an old sourdough is frozen stiff, only to thaw back to life when his partner tries to cremate his body. Before I hopped onto that fire's spot, I thought Sam McGee was fictitious. But I believe in Sam now. I have been there, and I know it to be true: for 30 minutes after I jumped into that fire I was warm and comfortable. I fairly slept.
After jumping into the fire, the rest of the trip was downhill. In the light of the next day, my partners ate their words and we went east -- finally -- until we dumped out on the road only two or three miles from our car. And our luck continued to get better. Don flagged down a passing car and charmed the woman driver because he is, after all, a Famous Guy. She took us to her home and treated us all to a big, delicious breakfast in front of a crackling fire, which I avoided jumping into. The next trip, Don was in charge of food and schmoozing. But I was in charge of directions.