“If you’d live to be a grey-haired wonder. Keep the nose out of the blue!”
-line from the Air Force song
Perhaps a strange introduction to a hiking piece but living to be a gray haired wonder means a combination of experience, health, luck and wisdom. I started flying in 1982 in the military and it is my current job.
One of the things we learn is to pay attention to “red flags”, those little nigglers that tickle the periphery and beg to be investigated. Human nature sometimes gets in the way and we either ignore them or allow them to pass, otherwise known as “blowing it off.” Training helps to recognize a red flag and investigate further until whatever it is is satisfactorily explained or corrected to everyone’s satisfaction.
This concept is also important in outdoors endeavors and brings to mind a couple of instances where I did not carry over my diligence in flying and apply the same process with dealing with red flags in backpacking or climbing. For me it seems that Glacier Peak is my personal cone of confusion so I offer these experiences in the hopes it might help others.
In the year 2000, prior to the floods of ’03 and ’06, a buddy and I headed up to Glacier Peak to climb via the Sitkum glacier route.This was a last minute change as we had originally planned on climbing Mt. Baker, but I had a book with a description of the route so surely that would be enough.
We drove via the now obliterated White Chuck road to the trailhead and headed out on a trail we had hiked previously. In obtaining our permits the ranger told us there were a number of other parties climbing the same route. Before we left the car with no map, we read through the route description one more time and declared ourselves “done edumicated”, as Jethro would say. Off we went in beautiful weather and came to a trail junction that said PCT left, Kennedy Hot Springs straight. Well we knew from the description that we were to intersect the PCT and continue .5 miles to the climbers path so we took the left to the PCT for the shortcut.
Did I mention we had no maps? Sure enough we came to the PCT and took a left, looking for the climbers trail that was a long time coming. Do the people that write these guidebooks actually hike these trails? Because it was more like 2 miles before we finally got to the climbers trail and we disparaged the author on his lack of precision. We followed the trail until we got to the moraine and noted a skimpy privy, certainly not the one described in the guide but we already concluded that the author never actually came here. Ha ha, I can’t believe these guys who write these books, so we set up our bivies on the moraine and scoped out the glacier we would ascend in the morning. Where were all the other parties that were supposed to be here? That ranger doesn’t know s*%t from shinola we chuckled and enjoyed the solitude of our camp.
Next morning we were up early and made good progress on the glacier until we got to a slope that was much steeper. Man, that guide book made this ascent to be a class lower but we chalked it up to our wimpiness and climbed using all those techniques with French names. When we finally topped out we were on a gendarme that looked almost directly across to the summit; in fact we saw someone over there already.
However, the scramble we would need to do to get over there didn’t fill us with confidence and we decided to call it a day and descend back to camp. There we collected our gear and merrily made our way down the trail, where we ran into someone hiking with a wolf dog so we struck up a conversation. When we described our day he looked at us like his blue eyed wolf dog and pulled out a map. We had climbed the wrong glacier, the next one over. Our previous day’s shortcut had landed us north of the climbers trail we actually wanted. We had made everything fit our expectations, cramming the square peg into the round hole. We had not paid attention to the red flags. We sheepishly made our way back to the vehicle and chalked it up to lessons learned.
Last year I returned to Glacier Peak with my daughter to do a 50 mile loop. On the last day we would have to transit the Kennedy Hot Springs area to gain the trail needed to return us to our car. However, that area was now wiped out so we would have to find the trail by braille. We knew that the trails in this area were literally chopped off by erosion so we may have to scramble up banks to try and locate them. We had a map, but no GPS. On the last day we set out and noted old signs like “Kennedy Hot Springs” with a sharpie note that said “no longer there.”
We continued on the PCT to where we thought we had to turn left but it seemed much longer than it should have. The trail was in ill repair. We finally made our way down to the 3 river junction where we had to find a way across to gain the other trail. We eventually found a log suitable for crossing and I spent some time climbing eroded hillsides trying to find the trail in the forest above.
Finally I came across the trail, and with a sigh of relief we schwacked our way across eroded sections until we left that area behind. We wondered when the trail was going to turn back in the direction we thought we should be going. No problem, we were just happy to be out of that mess. We came to a junction that was perplexing, and there was some writing on a barkless log down low with one inch letters that contradicted where we thought we should be. Alarm bells were going off and confusion ran high. We made a decision on the direction we should go and came to a creek crossing.
I looked at the skinny log used for crossing the creek and said to my daughter, “Hey, does that log look familiar?” And suddenly, in a flash of understanding, we recognized where we were….the same creek we had crossed exactly 5 hours earlier. We had missed the left turn earlier in the morning when we didn’t see the sharpie writing on the log and continued too far north. We actually needed to cross two rivers at the three river junction. I had failed once again to explore the red flags and investigate until we knew exactly where we were. Fortunately we were then able to come up with a plan of escape and made it back to the vehicle using an alternate route.
As we head into this season perhaps remind yourself to listen to those little warning bells and not blow them off. Investigate what is making you feel slightly uncomfortable until you are satisfied. Don’t subscribe to the idea of a passing thought. And last but not least, don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Be safe out there and become a gray-haired wonder!
This post was contributed by former Trail Ambassador Steve Burgess.