Day 71: The Snow Chute

May 31, 2018

775.6-787

Ghosthiker wanted to see the sunrise from the summit of Forrester Pass, so we were up and hiking out by 4:30am. A little later than we’d planned, but as we hiked up toward the pass the sun turned the sky purple and the sun hit the peaks of the distant mountains long before we saw it. The snow caps lit up with brilliant shades of orange and pink, and we couldn’t help but stop and take photos. It was incredible. We wore our microspikes to hike through the frozen solid snow to the pass, stopping often to take pictures and videos.

Sparky crossing a stream.
Still better than the desert!

It got SO cold as we ascended. I prayed I wouldn’t get frostbite because the temperature dropped so low that my hand warmers couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t until we got close and could see the switchbacks up the pass that I suddenly started getting nervous about this climb. The switchbacks were narrow with very steep drops on one side. There was so much snow at first that we had to climb at random until we actually found the trail.

Can you see the hiker trying to reach the switchbacks?

It was at that point that the real fear set in. I’d been so nervous about climbing Mt. Whitney that I hadn’t had time to consider that Forrester Pass might be far worse, and it was. It wasn’t a long way at all, about a mile from the base to the summit, but the altitude and the narrow ledges had me almost panic-stricken. If I hadn’t known this was the only way to go forward, I would have gone back down, I was that terrified. The worst part wasn’t even the switchbacks we were on, it was knowing that close to the top was a snow chute we’d have to cross – a nearly vertical bank of snow with steps carved into it by other hikers. Not even real steps! No rocks underneath, just snow and ice for about 20 steps across an otherwise sheer drop down 700 feet to a rocky end. So yeah, I was terrified. I may have silently cried several times on the way up.

This is it, I thought. This is how I die. I’m gonna die here!

My trail family stayed close to me the whole way. I could not have done it without them. I’ve honestly never known such fear. When we finally reached the chute, Sparky went first. I knew I basically had no choice, and waiting would have just made the fear and anticipation worse, so I got to the point where the trail ended and I had to cross the chute I just started across without pausing to think about it.

I looked at my feet, planted my ice ax securely in the snow above me before every step (in case I slipped), and started across. I knew that if I was going to fall, there was literally nothing I could do about it. I knew the trail didn’t care if I lived or died, but other hikers had gone across and survived. So could I, right?

There is a moment when one faces their greatest fear or a life-threatening situation where thoughts and feelings disappear and action takes over. It’s when crimes of passion are committed, or when someone performs an amazing feat of strength in order to rescue a loved one. It’s how athletes push through fatigue or pain simply by blocking it out. Mind over matter, or something like that.

This is what happened to me as I took my first step across the snow chute. I immediately adopted a routine and followed through: Plant my ax into the firm ice and snow to my right, take one step, then another. Plant my ax, take one step. Another. Plant. Step. Step. Plant. I didn’t look out to my left at the sheer drop beside me, I only looked ahead to my next two steps and where I’d plant my ax. No further. Plant, step, step, plant. 

Me crossing the snow chute.

And just like that, I was on the other side. 

I collapsed against the mountain and burst into tears. I vaguely remember making myself take deep breaths in and out as I crossed the chute. My instinct was to hold my breath, but passing out certainly wasn’t going to do my any good. When I finally got to the other side, though, I was gasping air as if I’d just been swimming laps. My trail family cheered.

View of the trail toward the chute. This was taken after I crossed, looking back at where I’d come from.
Me attempting a smile through the tears and abating terror.
Ghosthiker, fearless.
One more little climb to the summit.
Success!
Definitely thought I was gonna die.
Another “beacon” atop a mountain.

When we finally reached the top of the pass…there are no words. The two biggest climbing challenges on this trail and I’d overcome them both. Whitney and Forrester. I was done. More than a feeling of pride and accomplishment, I just felt relieved. I didn’t have to think about these two monsters anymore. I’d done it. 

Celebratory Snickers
Coming down out of the snow.
The last thing I expected to see up here!

The hike down was fun. The sun was out, melting the snow, but we made it off the mountain long before anyone started post-holing. It was a long and tricky descent where we often couldn’t even find the trail and had to slip and slide down some rocky slopes to get to where we needed to be. I had a small bottle of Gatorade in the side pocket of my pack and during a tricky climb down some rocks, it slipped out and tumbled down the snowy mountain and out of sight. I felt terrible for leaving it behind, but there was no way I could get down there and retrieve it now.

As we got lower it finally got warmer, and we camped at Vidette Meadow. Tomorrow we’re hitching into Bishop, CA. I was very excited about this. It hadn’t been part of the original plan, and we’d only been back on the trail for about 4 days, but we were all exhausted from the steep climbs and cold nights, so hot meals and even hotter showers sounded glorious.

Image by Ghosthiker (those are her lovely feet) of me crossing the creek.
The view from our camp at Vidette Meadow!
Goodnight.

Published by rogerssj23

I'm a long-distance hiker, an audiobook producer, and an amateur writer. I live in the woods in a renovated 1972 Airstream with my Golden Retriever Zoe. Read more about my hiking adventures at sarahhikes.com.

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