Sunday, January 28, 2018

Whiteout at Heather Lake

Greetings, Earthlings-from Snowpocalypse, USA. Proving their ever elusive nature, the mountains surprised us with feet of fresh snow even at low elevation this week. The last trail report posted of this typically easy but wet jaunt to Heather Lake read exactly as I would have expected, with mention of snow at the top and lots of flowing stream crossings along the way. When my buddy Fuji and I arrived bright and early on Friday morning though, the one-mile road in from the Mountain Loop Highway was a snowy, potholed mess that accurately foreshadowed the trail to come. We had his dog and his parents' dog with us, who both seemed to be wondering what the hell we had gotten them into.

We were making good time climbing the short but somewhat steep trail until we got within about a half mile of the lake. It was clear from both the crisp wind picking up and the open tree line in the distance that we were really close to the water, but in the midst of conversation we all of a sudden realized we were walking up a stream bed and no longer on trail. Despite doing this hike so many times before, I couldn't recognize shit in the fresh snow falling around us and the feet of powder covering every notable trail marker around. He asked me if things looked familiar and I... had no idea.

I immediately started to feel the slow crawl of panic inching up my spine. I was having thoughts I didn't want to have, and no idea where we had lost the trail. All of a sudden I felt really stupid, unprepared, and a little pissed at myself.

The snow was coming down heavily and we had begone post-holing through thigh deep conditions. My right foot was already numb from the many creek crossings. Fuji had been leading our little pack of stragglers, kicking and dragging his boots through the fresh pow so that the dogs and I could have a bit of an actual path. Luckily he happens to be a supremely calm dude who told me stay put with the dogs while he back tracked through the tracks to figure out where we were in relation to the trail, or lake, or both.

Soon he had figured out where things went wrong and we were making our way out of the stream bed. This time I left a marker in the snow at the point where our path had diverged from the "trail"; Which wasn't so much a trail anymore but a slight clearing of untouched fresh snow between trees. Ah well, we had just pulled a Robert Frost for a few minutes there: Taking the path less traveled by.

Conditions at the lake were pretty gnarly. First of all, you could only see one edge of the water itself, which was frozen over and covered by the fresh, heavy frosting of powder. A very subtle hint of the monolith granite mountains in the distance were visible, but only because I already know them to be there. It was basically whiteout conditions, and the snow was continuing to come down hard.

The only bit of lake visible in the whiteout
Arthur strikes a pose

I usually maintain a steadfast optimism in my approach and mentality towards hiking. Although I have grown more cautious since dislocating my knee while hiking alone, I would never, ever give up the practice of exploring solo. I don't spend much time stressing about worst case scenarios; I pack the essentials and check hike reports as well as weather and avalanche websites. Then I head into the woods and put thoughts of natural disaster, wild bears, creepy weirdos, flat tires, etc. out of my mind. This allows me the freedom to hike alone (or with others) without being consumed by the what-if's. Having this disassociation is usually pretty necessary for me because it locks me out of my own panic room. It was interesting to feel that foreign fear for even a few brief minutes. I don't spend much time in that mentality when it comes to the outdoors. In fact, It's the only space in which I generally feel confident and calm, nearly ethereal. This was a good reminder for me and also a great hike with a great friend on a Friday off from work.

For comparison, here is a photo from the last time I hiked to Heather Lake in June:

"You are starting from yourself, and it's the self that contains all the answers. So you have to give up on the idea that you must go from A to B. There is no linear path....The one reality includes  everything in its tangle of experiences, and what we are trying to find is the experiencer who is present no matter what experience you are having." -Deepak Chopra


  1. Whiteout conditions can be pretty scary, even on familiar trails. A helpful tool is a gps program on your phone with the map of the area preloaded so you don't need cell signal for it to work. Trudge on!


Comments Welcome