by T. Duren Jones
One never knows how a routine hike may actually turn into a story. Sure, I sprained my wrist, but it was worth it.
It was supposed to be such a simple snowshoe hike, the first big hike of the year for me. The last three months of winter had been complicated, and I wasn’t able to get outside much. That always makes me a bit crazy. I mean more than usual.
I had snowshoed to these high alpine frozen lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park a few winters ago, looked forward to the familiar spectacular beauty, and felt the hike itself would be fairly routine. I needed some scenic snow photos for my annual calendar, and I knew this setting would deliver. I couldn’t have known this trip would turn out to be a comedy of errors--that is, if you find these kinds of things funny. You know, cruelly laughing at the misfortunes of others.
My two-and-a-half hour drive to the park started before dawn. Nothing unusual there. I frequently start my hiking days early. Got my typical wake-up cup of java on the way, and an energy-producing breakfast sandwich, chased with an orange juice. I don’t know what happened, but when I arrived at the Visitor’s Center, I had to run to the restroom anticipating the BIG D, to explosive results. My apologies to the custodial staff. This wasn’t how a hiking day was to start, and I especially didn’t want to have similar lower intestinal events on the trail.
Shortly, I began to feel better and drove to the entrance gate to pay my fee. I told the park ranger about my plans (but not about the restroom) and inquired about snow levels and trail conditions. He said I could expect a good snowshoe hike but advised me to stay off the lakes as they were starting to thaw around the edges. Also, he warned me that if I proceeded past the third lake to higher slopes, I could be in avalanche danger. I vowed to follow his instructions. I enjoy a good day out hiking that doesn’t involve falling into icy hypothermic water or getting clobbered by a freight train of cascading snow.
I got to the trailhead at Bear Lake well ahead of other Saturday hikers. I put on my heavily insulated boots and my gaiters, grabbed my hiking stick with a snow foot, and secured my snowshoes on my pack (stuffed with extra T.P. just in case) with a bungee cord. Since the trail began with a mix of snow, exposed dirt, and rock, I had decided to wait before putting on my snowshoes, with their nice ice-grabbing teeth, until I was farther up the trail where the snow got deeper. Clearly a rookie mistake, and I am no rookie.
I was now feeling surprisingly well, excited for my day.
Not ten yards from the parking lot, I slipped on an ice patch and came down hard on my rear end (yes, that rear end), bending my wrist back at an odd angle. Seriously? I hadn’t even started the hike yet!
Flat on my back, hoping no one had seen me go down (being the experienced hiker and all), I stayed put a few moments, looking like an overturned turtle, and took injury inventory. Thankfully, my pack had taken the brunt of the fall, but my wrist hurt like a son-of-a-gun. Probably just a sprain, I thought, hopefully nothing worse. I slid down the short, slippery stretch, rolled a couple of times, and carefully got back to my feet.
Undaunted, I wrapped my throbbing wrist with an Ace bandage, strapped my snowshoes onto my boots, and started up the mountain. I was here for a purpose, and no way was I going back without my photos!
The scenery did not disappoint as I passed by (but not across) Nymph Lake on my way to Dream Lake, both still frozen over but slushy around the edges. I looked up through the pines at a deep blue sky that can be seen in such a rich tone only at high altitude. Enthralled at the beauty of the dappled light through the forest on the snow carpet, I wasn’t too bothered by continually trying to refasten my pack belt buckle … that is, until I was terribly annoyed at it popping open.
Apparently, as a result of my fall, not only had I possibly broken my arm, but I had definitely broken my pack buckle with the impact. Without the security of the belt for stability and proper weight distribution, the flopping pack was making me quite uncomfortable. I tried tying the belt around my waist to poor results. Somehow, I’d make the best of it.
As I approached the egress of melting water at Dream Lake, the belt popped open again. My attached camera pouch fell away as well, and because I hadn’t properly zipped the bag shut, out tumbled my camera. I watched in slow motion as it bounced away from me on another ice patch. Nooooo! I had come all this way for scenic snow shots, and I looked down in horror as my camera came to rest inches from the icy stream.
My stomach gurgled. Great. Not now, please. Not here. Picking up the camera, I could not see any obvious lens or body damage. I tested it from a location that gave me an iconic shot across a lake encircled by pines, with jagged snow capped peaks in the background. The camera worked and I got my shot! I used the bungee cord as a pack belt--as stupid as that must have looked—by attaching it to parts of the pack, and continued on to Emerald Lake.
The Emerald Lake bowl was breathtaking, although the white lake itself not too emerald at this time of year. I enjoyed a snack lunch sitting in warm sun on boulders above the lake. “Camp robber” birds begged for treats from pine boughs an arm’s distance away. I watched for a while some card-carrying idiots (obviously having ignored the warning from the park ranger) struggling up the snow slopes across the lake with their skis covered in skins. I needed to head back, so I didn’t have time to wait and watch the avalanche bash and tumble the twenty-something skiers to their doom.
On my way back down, I realized again that the trail conditions were not ideal for snowshoeing. Fresh snow had not fallen in days, it was a little packed down from other hikers, and in many places the warmth of the day had melted the snow, only to refreeze at night, making early morning hikes a bit challenging. So, even with the snowshoe teeth grabbing what they could, I fell a few times. In truth, on hikes, especially on mountain climbs, I fall a lot. Nothing too serious, except for the time I slipped into a hole when mountain climbing and broke my leg. I devote a chapter in my book, Tales from the Trails, to falling down on trail hikes, appropriately titled, “I Fall Down a Lot.”Part of the experience is a badge of honor, coming down off the top of a 14,000-ft. peak, and slipping on scree. Part of it is just darn embarrassing.
I had a great hike this day, even with unexpected challenges. And I got the photos I was after. One never knows how a routine hike may actually turn into a story. Sure, I sprained my wrist, but it was worth it. You can’t make wilderness memories without actually getting out there. And the rewards far outweigh the risks; you might fall into a great adventure.