Sometimes you need ‘risk management,’ tree well
| February 3, 2022 1:00 AM
A Geo Metro is really an egg with a stick shift and little toy wheels, not fit for the mountains. The white one I was driving in a caravan of college students up Mountain Loop Highway was overfilled. The three-cylinder motor gave us everything. We planned to climb Mt. Pilchuck and stay overnight in the fire lookout that was bolted to the top. It was January. We got a late start. No one had signed on to mountaineering a glacier in the dark. Except maybe me.
I was driving the Metro because Kimberly in the passenger seat judged me more competent to mash her poor vehicle through the snow drifts as our road gained altitude. Our tribe of novice climbers whooped and howled in the parking area before scrambling up a snowy pathway into the woods.
We made good time hiking below the tree line. The forest shielded us from the wind. Thin snowflakes fell in the afternoon light, accumulating faster than we cared to notice. It was not until we emerged into higher elevation that things became difficult.
Our path to the top had become confused when we left the trees. Previous tracks were filled in. Visibility dropped to 50 feet. We stood there in the exposure, checked by each windblast to the face.
“Which way to the top?” asked Kimberly.
“Up,” I replied with gusto, “we can’t miss it.”
Others chimed-in with concerns about the worsening of weather and light. I had been to the top a few weeks before, in clear conditions.
“Focus and speed will do the job; we will be happy and warm in an hour.”
Jake had been quiet. I barely knew him. For the car ride and our initial march in, he observed from the back. He tacked onto the trip at the last minute which annoyed me a little.
“We have to turn around now,” said Jake.
“What? Why? We can push hard in the light we have.”
“We are not going to do that.”
“That’s the adventure. We got this. Trust me.”
My words felt weak as I said them. They landed nowhere.
“We are not doing adventure right now,” said Jake in a steady voice.
“Then what are we doing?”
Jake continued, “late start, weather, sunset, loss of trail, inexperience, unknowns at the top… we need to turn around.”
I surveyed the faces of each member of the group. Eyes were wide, concerned. Kimberly sealed the decision.
“I’m with Jake. Thank you for protecting us.”
I shook my head as the group turned itself around and headed back down the trail, following Jake. I hiked silently at the end of the line.
Thirty minutes out of the wind and on a good trail, I admitted to myself that I was relieved. The darkened woods in the falling snow stood like sentinels. We were OK.
Down trail, I heard the return of laughter. Jake had halted them and put himself into a massive tree well of snow. Working steadily with his shovel, he carved and packed an impressive circular bench. Then he called for all the sleeping pads and laid them on the bench.
“Sit,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m making dinner!”
We sat shoulder-to-shoulder in evergreen refuge. Bright smiles shone in our headlamps. Jake made us hiker pasta. After dinner, I pulled out my own stove and made cup after cup of cocoa, to the cheers of happily cold faces.
We hiked back as a happy company. I was grateful Jake spoke up so everyone could make it safely into their beds.
Nathan R. Moser is pastor of the Community Church of Ephrata. He loves the outdoors and writing stories.