Only one encounter with animals ever made me a little anxious. It just didn't bother me when I grew up in scouts, paddling down swampy southern rivers, slowly floating by gators and water moccasins. Neither did it disturb me to find bobcat tracks through camp, nor the morning on a side trail of the AT when we hiked through a bed of 14 rattlers, 8 on one side of the trail and 6 on the other. Maybe I was overconfident in my young adulthood, but I remember feeling confident in judging whether snow bridges across raging streams in springtime were strong enough to support my and others' weight. The one time an animal made me a bit uneasy was the night on the Bartram Trail in the Appalachians of north Georgia when a boar (not bear-boar) ran through camp 8 or 9 times squealing in a very high pitch, rooting and rutting all over the place. I was on the ground on a moonless night and knew staying motionless was the only defense against his tusks.
Having fallen 20 feet out of a tree at age 7 and broken two vertebrae (just one of numerous wild childhood misadventures), I was mildly apprehensive when I took up technical climbing. I did get over that and became an instructor. Climbing itself never was my favorite outdoor activity, although I did get to the point that jumping off 110 degree overhanging cliffs on a single strand rappel with no belay, then popping the brake just before reaching the ground became thrilling, much like running high Class III in C2 opens, or effortlessly floating through 6 feet of fresh powder on KT-22!
There was one single occasion that I have been scared out of my wits though. We all remember the winter of 2010-2011. No longer the young strong instructor I used to be, I decided to take my niece and daughter on a little jaunt in Desolation. I knew there had been a lot of snow, but did not realize how much was still there as mid-July approached. We went in at Echo and hit snow around the top of the grade. By Haypress Meadows, the snowpack was a consistent 6 ft. We found a single bare patch above Aloha for the night. In passing Echo the next day, I made a photo of my niece atop a 40' drift. It was July 11, 2011.
I had plenty of experience in snowpack in the Sierra and Rockies before, had hiked parts of the AT in ice cleats as well as nordic ski-packed Uncompaghre CO, both in mid-winter, but always had had the right equipment. At my now higher age, I decided taking crampons, ice axe, and rope would likely be dead weight from which I could spare my back. It was a bad decision. Coming down from Aloha toward Heather we got to a rather steep bowl which had, of course, boulders and trees at the bottom. I could see one or two melt-throughs and was trying to follow the trail. I had the girls stay at the top and began stomping steps downhill with my heels. I reached a patch that was very solid and icy and my feet suddenly were gone. Fortunately instinct kicked in and at the moment my hip contacted the snow I was able to spin-flip, dig in my toes, and drive all 10 fingers like grappling hooks into the snowpack. The slide continued about 2/3 of the way to the boulders before the arrest was complete. My fingers were completely without feeling and the adrenaline pumping full. Leaving my pack at the bottom, I went back up, found another route around the other side of the bowl, and got the girls down. Though I was pretty unnerved, the biggest danger was yet to come.
After a stop between the bowl and the lake, we arrived at Heather. There were bare patches with the trail exposed at each end of the lake, but across the median lay a section about 150 meters long in which hard snowpack extended from the top of the ridge all the way down to the lake. The slope was steep (on another trip through with my daughter 2 years to the day later, I used a little angle ruler and measured the slope at 55 degrees). The top of the lake was frozen solid except for a band of melt about 1 meter wide around the entire perimeter, the water an azure so deep I had seen it only once prior when hiking a man made tunnel into the depths of the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland. As a former physics teacher and physiology student, I knew the interface between the water and ice would be exactly zero Celsius and that slipping here could result in no outcome other than careening directly into that band with the momentum carrying one's body out and beneath the ice, followed by horrifying death.
I was very ticked at myself for breaking the cardinal rule of survival: avoid survival situations. I had no crampons, no ice axe, no rope for belay. I was acutely aware that my body had neither the strength, endurance, or flexibility to deal with this as I would have decades earlier. Rarely either did I hike without another extremely experienced person to accompany me. The spill in the bowl had already shaken my focus and confidence. The anxiety was now surely there, but I knew I had to suppress it and focus with all my faculties. Leaving the backpack, I slowly stomped a trail to the other end and back, then did the same twice more. Following that I shuttled the three packs, one at a time to the far end. Having been raised in an abusive home, I for many years was terrified that I would not know how to be a good father and feared having children. At the age of four, this niece of mine had made me realize what I was missing. Even now, she is the kindest and most caring person I have ever known. Then following several years of unsuccessfully trying to conceive, going through infertility treatments, and then red tape, we had adopted a precious little girl. Now here I stood responsible for the lives of two of the three people I loved most in this world. That reality was very very hard. I knew that any of us could die on this traverse. I knew I would not be able to survive without either of these two precious girls, and neither would my wife or her sister. Bringing to bear a yoga like meditative focus, I did my best to project an aura of calm but careful demeanor. Amazingly, the girls followed me with a complete serenity and we arrived safely at the far end of the snowfield. We found one bare spot to camp at Susie and had to make a couple of wet feet fords of swollen streams. I excoriated myself well, but vowed to learn from the mistake. Was I scared? You bet your bootie, but fear is something that serves one well if channeled properly. In all though, I know that fortune smiled upon me that day.
Last edited by Tom_H
on Wed Dec 18, 2013 7:43 pm, edited 4 times in total.