Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Iroquois 1/20/14: He's fallen on the ice, it cracks Will he plunge in and join me here?

I finally feel ready to revisit a hike that didn't go well. One where I made several good decisions, a few bad decisions, and one very bad decision. I learned a lot that day and it was one of several times in my hiking career I had to come face to face with just how serious and unforgiving this kind of hiking is.

In the weeks leading up to the hike I'd been carefully tracking the weather and following trip reports on the high peaks forum for conditions updates. Soon before my planned hike there was a not uncommon early January thaw, with rain and temperatures well above freezing in the high peaks. I even made a thread in the trip planning section of the forum inquiring about the thaw and its effects on the ice of Flowed Lands. A user informed me the channel of the Opalescent River, after the Lake Colden Dam, was especially susceptible to opening up after a thaw like that. The ice goes out after a heavy flow of rain and melted snow builds tremendous force down the steep and tight gorge of the  Opalescent River. A deceptively thin layer of fresh ice makes it appear more solid than it is.  It seems like I'm doing really diligent research  right? Which is a good thing. Here's the problem... I was really geeking out about conditions because I was hellbent on crossing Flowed lands.

Crossing Flowed Lands on the way to Cliff March 2014
During my wife and I's 46, I fell completely in love with Flowed lands and the hike in from Upper Works. The history of the iron works, the associated tragedy and the unbelievable beauty of the base camp there make for a rich and dramatic experience. If Marcy Dam was the front yard of the High Peaks, Flowed Lands was the back. A bit more overgrown and wild, a little less crowded since it was harder to get to. The drive up 28N from North Creek and it's associated history also contributed to my love for this route. Also, the Warrensburg Stewart's.

Koda's first camping trip 4/27-28/14
As much as I love Flowed Lands, the trail around its northwestern corner of Flowed lands is something I don't love. It's rugged and muddy with a lot of little ups and downs. When  first learned that you could skip this tiring section and even shorten your hike a bit by crossing the frozen Flow in the winter, I knew I really wanted to do it. Despite knowing there was decent potential for bad ice, I committed to the idea of crossing. The morning broke cold and snowy, with a starting temperature of 0 F and a high of around 11. Koda and I's hike in was uneventful and soon I was passing the Calamity lean to and looking out from the frozen shore of Flowed Lands. There was a faint track crossing out onto The flow which I followed out across the section that is a pond in the summer.

The track I was following petered out. Now that I've crossed it several times I'm pretty familiar with the two tracks that form: the one heading to Herbert Brook lean to for hikers approaching Marshall and the track that crosses the channel and heads towards the east side of Lake Colden and the trail up the Opalescent River. On that day with my lack of experience I floundered around in high brush and loose snow attempting a trajectory towards the Herbert Brook Lean to. As I approached the Opalescent Channel, it was clear that at least some of the ice had gone out. The shore of the channel was piled with sidewalk section sized chunks of ice refrozen into an unruly jumble. There still a appeared to be snow covered ice across the channel though. I kept scanning up and down for where to go next. In hindsight I had ended up way too far northwest. I should've been on more of a northeast headed track. I was not too far off from the trail around Flowed Lands. This section of the trail was offset from the shore because of some short cliff bands that fell directly into the water.

I couldn't cut back to the trail or find a way northeast and back on bearing without crossing the clearly thin Opalescent Channel. Climbing onto the broken up peanut brittle ice I knew I was doing something dumb. My pulse was up and I was worried. I started breaking through air pockets in the jumble of thinly refrozen ice. I kept pushing forward despite the danger about a meter or so from the shore broke through the ice completely and found myself mid-thigh in the Opalescent River in 10 degree weather in January. I was able to calm myself and focus on not making my situation worse with flailing. Koda had not fallen in. He was still on the shore giving me a look that seemed to say "dude, what are doing in the water? That is really stupid." The rounded cliffs bordering Flowed Lands here made finding a place to  pull up and out more challenging. My snowshoes had sunken a bit into the sandy river gravel that makes up the river bed there. The current pulling through the Flow was a strong but not completely overwhelming feeling of dread caressing my ankles. My first attempts met with more ice breaking around me. I was eventually able to use a pine sapling and Koda's leash to pull up onto the shore.

Why in water Chris? Ur dumb. Koda on 1/20/14
Now a bit of panic set in. I knew I had to get the wet clothes off fast. I was much closer to Herbert Brook lean to and the Lake Colden interior outpost but knew there was no safe way from where I was so I backtracked quickly across Flowed lands to the Calamity Lean to cursing my stupidity all the while. I've been talking about and writing about Calamity Brook, Calamity Mountain and Calamity lean to for so long that it wasn't until my friend Sathi pointed it out, pretty effing funny that I retreated to Calamity lean to after my calamity.

Here's where I did a few right things in preparation. From all the researching I'd done about gear I had a pretty good amount of equipment ready to go for just such an event. In a dry sack I had my heaviest polypropylene long Johns, several pairs of heavy socks, spare gloves and a stash of super market bags. I was wearing my midweight Airblaster ninja suit  as my base layer. I stripped down completely, filling one of my plastic bags with my wet base layer, socks and polypro hoodie I had under my shell jacket. I pulled on the blessedly warm and dry heavy duty base layers and socks and immediately felt better. I know I was cold but don't remember it being too crazy feeling at the time. I took stock of the rest of my gear. My jacket was damp but not soaked and was pretty much freezing so didn't really feel wet. My shell pants (the now defunct Go-lite brand's version of the Marmot Minimalist Pant) seemed to be drying pretty rapidly. They started as rain pants and ended up as winter hiking pants as well for their ability to not only not get wet most of the time but if they did, dry out quickly.

All in all, things seemed not too bad for having been standing in a river 20 minutes earlier. Then I checked out my boots. Not surprisingly my  Asolo TPS 520 (still to this day the finest hiking boot I've ever owned which are still in rotation) hiking boots were completely waterlogged. I had read winter trip reports where folks had broken through ice and wrapped a plastic bag around fresh dry socks to be able to continue their hike. That's why I carried supermarket bags with me in my pack at all times. I also use them to pick up and carry out garbage. So I decided to try this technique and continue on with my hike. Here's where the real bad decision making starts. The two reports that I had read where this technique was used were radically different then my situation. In both of these cases the hiker had only dipped a single foot in. In my situation both feet were in and completely soaked. This ups the danger level significantly. I'd be losing a lot more heat. Also, both of those other incidents involved a person who was part of a group. The decision to continue on was made with a group of very experienced hikers and these people all had full packs with their own stashes of emergency gear. I made the decision alone and now all of my survival gear was in play. If something else went wrong, I wouldn't be able to stay warm. Or help out someone else in need. I warped the narrative to support what I wanted to do though.

Looking back there's no way I should've kept hiking. I was a strong hiker at the time and had had many hikes go well. I was a card carrying 46er and felt pretty tough. I got pretty into the thrill of the chase or summit fever. I battled with my inner meathead as I liked to describe it as far as wanting to go on and challenge myself. It's not necessarily the worst drive, to want to push your body and will, but it can become a problem when you make bad decisions that put you or your hiking companions into unpleasant or dangerous situations. This natural tendency of humans is why I believe Grace Hudowalski developed her "the mountains will wait" philosophy that I think is so critical to becoming a responsible hiker. Here's a very graceful way to deal with the disappointment of having to turn back. I couldn't hear that logic on this day though. My inner meathead won.

You should always listen to Amazing Grace
Ego contributed to poor decision making here as well. Jeanette had gotten me a Spot Device for Christmas that year. I had started hiking solo in winter in 2013 which worried her. This was a compromise. I could text her, hit the big red button that calls the cavalry if I gt in trouble, and she could watch my track as well. I'm part of a Facebook message group that most of my Albany friends are in. It started as a way to plan our weekly Survivor TV night (don't judge, you watch bad TV too) but evolved into a a place where people could just sort of chat when they were in the mood. On my way out the door that morning I had shared my Spot tracking website so folks could follow along with my hike. It certainly factored in to my decision making that my friends were watching and I didn't want them to see me turn around without reaching my goal. Grace would've let me have it on that being a factor. It's also really dumb that I let something that should've actually made my hike safer, negatively impact my decision making. 

I put on the lighter of the two pairs of socks I had, stashing the heavier ones in case my Hannaford bags wrapped around my feet solution proved to be a less than perfect waterproof barrier. Koda and I started hiking around Flowed Lands on the trail I had managed to walk into a river to avoid. Which turned out to be fine of course and boy did I feel stupid. Here's another place where I did something right after my big stupid: I had already planned on checking in with the Lake Colden Interior Outpost Caretaker. The trail up from Lake Colden to the Col between Algonquin Peak and Boundary peak is not used all that often in the winter so I wanted someone to know I had gone up that way. It was reassuring to see another human after what I had just gone through. I told him my itinerary and was soon climbing one of the steepest trails in the high peaks.

The intensity of my situation sank in as I started climbing through a few inches of loose, unbroken powder along the frozen brook. Snow had been falling gently but steadily the entire day and windswept views of Mount Colden kept reinforcing just how alone I was. Sorry Koda, you're a great hiking buddy but the thought of you sitting alertly on my frozen body halfway up a mountain waiting for my help to arrive  is cold comfort to say the least. About a mile up the two mile trail, my socks had started to soak through and I knew if I wanted a shot at Iroquois I'd have to change them. I was exerting quite a bit to climb the steep trail so stopping and taking off my socks really shocked my system.

Ascending the McIntyre Range 1/20/14
I was shivering and frustrated. The snow kept getting deeper as we got into the higher elevations. At this point in hindsight I think that I was possibly suffering from mild to moderate hypothermia. Its a very challenging trail but my heart rate and breathing were even more out of control than would be expected. I was also definitely  experiencing some muddied and confused thinking. My brain was sluggish. Will and stupidity kept one snowshoe going in front of the other. I knew I should've been heading down but I kept thinking a little farther, I could just tag the summit and hike down to safety. Meathead logic.

Once I reached the intersection at the col, I was in bad shape. Drained, cold and disoriented. Conditions were typical of the range in winter. Very windy, low visibility and deeply drifted snow. I kept pushing and stumbling through the drifts on my bearing to the summit. At times on the herd path to Iroquois and at times floundering off of it and burning even more energy. Each bump or ledge became harder to surmount. I started muttering out loud "this is f$%king stupid" over and over again. But not stopping. I reached a waist high rock ledge and just couldn't bear to push up it. I quit. I knew I was really close to the top but also felt very close to being in a truly dangerous situation. Which I truly had been in for over an hour. My last pair of dry socks were soaked through and the temperature was hovering around 11 F.

Close to the summit. Likely experiencing Hypothermia. Still taking pictures. 1/20/14
A great wave of relief swept over me. I had finally made the right decision. I had ignored common sense, background research and my gut all day for the thrill of the chase and had almost paid dearly for it. I wasn't out of the woods yet though (man, if there's ever been a better time to use this idiom, I can't imagine it). With the trail somewhat broken and momentum carrying me down, I made quick time off the summit ridge. I wanted to try and get my body temperature up and get out of the most dangerous terrain as quickly as possible but also really wanted to make sure I didn't injure myself or get wet again.

I was afraid. For the second time ever in the woods, I was truly afraid. It led me to decide I didn't want to die alone in the woods and would do whatever I had to, both on this day and in the future, to make sure that never happened. Reaching the Interior outpost was a phenomenal landmark for my piece of mind. When I checked back in with the caretaker he suggested I cut across Lake Colden to save time. I hadn't told him I'd broken through the ice (I didn't want him to dissuade me from climbing) so I'm sure he couldn't figure out why I needed to be so thoroughly reassured the crossing was solid hahaha. I crossed over but still lapped around Flowed Lands for obvious reasons. As I made my way down to the Calamity Brook trail, the sun came out for the first time that day. The woods I had found so stark and unforgiving all day softened and showed the face that made me love it so deeply.

The sun comes out over Calamity Brook. 1/20/14
I was beyond grateful to reach my car. I had some spare stuff to change into and got the heat blasting. I also tried to eat, not having the appetite for most of the day. Despite the heat at full blast I shivered the entire way to Warrenburg and didn't feel truly ok until I had a hot lunch and coffee at Stewart's. God bless Stewart's. I cursed my own stupidity and pigheadedness over the course of that drive and vowed never to take a risk like that again. A vow I've kept and committed even more deeply too as a father now. At the time I was deeply embarrassed by my mistakes. I had read enough and hiked enough to know better. I didn't want to tell J because I knew she worried so much already. I didn't want to admit on the hiking forum what I had done. I wrote a trip report that is very carefully worded to omit key details hahahaha. I did tell my hiking crew soon after. I really wanted outside perspective to help me process it and Sathi and Emily are really great at providing real insight with a sense of humor. They told me I should share my experience immediately because they thought others could learn from it but I just wasn't ready to face it all.

Within a week or so I decided I couldn't count it for my round. I knew I was really close to the true summit but the way I had hiked it was unbecoming of an aspiring winter 46er and I wanted to do it right. To honor Grace and all the other patron saints of our beloved mountains. The next winter I hiked Algonquin and Iroquois with an incredible crew. Denise McQuade who I had met from the high peaks forum let me tag along with her group of hiking friends. Denise, Helena Nevarez, Terje Kuusk, Jackie Cordell and I had an beautiful day in the woods. Despite the white out conditions, it was one of my absolute favorite hikes of my winter round. We enjoyed each others company (and of course the safety net it provides) and had an absolute blast traversing the second highest mountain in New York. On the way over to Iroquois, navigation and trail-finding was absolutely a team effort and we even merged with another group so we could all support each other. If Grace had frowned down upon my egotistical flounderings the previous year, I'd like to think she smiled on how I had made it right. A funny thing happened towards the end of the walk over to Iroquois. I reached the ledge I had previously turned around at. It had been etched in my mind for the past 386 days. It was the summit. I had stopped just a few feet short of the summit. I think there's a lesson in there somewhere though I'm still trying to process it.

Great company climbing Algonquin 2/11/15
Climbing into Heaven 2/11/15
A snow and ice encrusted cairn on Algonquin 2/11/15
The title of this trip report is a taken from the lyrics of the Phish song It's Ice. It's part of a longer concept album called Rift that deserves a post all its own but I figured a quick analysis of the lyrics would really nicely wrap up the report here. The song, to me, is about the very thin line between good and evil or our choices to do right or wrong. How easy it is to fall in large or small ways. There is a fascinating darker layer to Tom Marshall's lyrics implying that the evil version of you is right on the other side of that thin line, ready to switch places if you fall. If you break through the ice. Who's really steering the ship though? Who's in control? An unsettling thought for sure.

David Welker "Approaching a Rift" 2015

 I press on the elastic sheet, I'm breathing through a slice
'Are they worms or are the serpents?' bubbles through the ice
The source was quite invisible, the ever-present voice
While skating, both legs tracing different shapes, I made my choice

I'm mimicking the image in whose radiance I bask
I'm tied to him, or him to me, depending who you ask
None the less reluctantly reflections tumble in
I slide with all the other on the wrong side of the skin

He's fallen on the ice, it cracks
Will he plunge in and join me here?
He meets my eyes, to my surprise
He laughs in full light of my frown
My double wants to pull me down

Slipping on the friction slide, my skin peels to the bone
The flesh I leave behind, is something that is not my own
I beg my mirror image for a moment with my soul
He's leaning back, time to attack, it's me who's in control

And every move I make he's got a hand up just in time
He's throwing several punches, and he's blocking most of mine
Defeated now I sulk and squirm above the frozen heights
Waiting, calculating till he ventures onto the ice.

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