Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fear of the Unknown: Hiking Wahkeena Falls to Larch Mountain

Last weekend's Mount Adams climb was the latest in a series of training climbs before we summit Mount Rainier.

Several new blog posts about those climbs, as well as hiking, surfing, traveling, and a student ministry update are all on the way!

Sometimes good hikes go bad. And sometimes bad titles happen to good blog posts.

Both scenarios came into play for Shaun's and my disastrous hike up Larch Mountain via the Wahkeena Falls trail, briefly mentioned in last month's "Best of 2014 all-new hiking photos" post (link).

Here's the whole story of that lingeringly painful (for me) and terrifying (for Shaun) day:

Our hike/trail run up Larch Mountain in late spring didn't need to spiral into an 18+ mile hike/scramble.  But multiple trail closures near Multnomah Falls left us with limited options, especially later when a crucial "Trail Closed" sign had gone missing for our return route.

The approach to Larch via the Wahkeena Falls trail adds miles.  But even with Sheamus the Energizer Bunny/Dog running along with us, we made up plenty of time with a breathless pace.

Wet weather during our hike/run up from the lower elevations...

...Eventually turned to snow, fog, and high winds as we neared the top.

Fingers freezing*, we were in a tremendous hurry to run back down from the top of Larch. Unfortunately, we hurried too tremendously to avoid a couple of missteps on our alternate route down:

Bad idea #1: Blowing through trail intersections at full speed without slowing down to process the signs

Bad idea #2: Taking turns navigating (as opposed to BOTH trail runners paying attention), based on whomever happens to be taking the lead at the time

Loyal Garth's Blog readers may remember that this is the second time in 15 years or so that Shaun and I have missed or overshot a trail junction, as we did last year near Munra Point.

I'll never tell which of us happened to be "navigating" this time when we ran off course.  But when I finally realized where we were, I was admittedly responsible for THIS doozy:

Bad idea #3: Turning onto a familiar trail which, we discovered later, was missing its well deserved "Trail Closed" warning sign

*If a certain hiking buddy is reading this, Shaun is gonna need those gloves back that I left in your car after our recent Dog Mountain hike.  Pretty please?

The Fear of the Unknown

This once-popular trail (name withheld, to prevent copycat hikers from getting fined by the US Forest Service) didn't start out so bad.   But soon, we were pushing, climbing, ducking, and hopping our way through the increasingly overgrown segments.  We began to question whether or not the path was still legit.

And then the trail completely dropped out.   We rounded a corner to encounter a cliff where the trail used to be.  Shaun, normally as brave and occasionally reckless on the trails as I am, froze up.

"All I can see is death," Shaun replied to my optimistic suggestion that there MUST be a way to cross the chasm in front of us.

Shaun continued to object, "There's just a giant broken staircase, crashed over on its side. Who knows what is beyond that?   Another drop-off?  A bigger cliff?"

For once in our long history of crazy adventuring together, my favorite hiking buddy was paralyzed by the fear of the unknown.   And we were both especially concerned about the safety of his dog, Sheamus.

The drop-off didn't seem as severe in my eyes, though.  I volunteered to scramble down solo for a recon mission, to convince everyone that the route was doable.

I captured and Tweeted this pic of Shaun and Sheamus, standing on top of the cliff, as I climbed down.

The terrain below wasn't anywhere near as treacherous as imagined.  As I hollered my findings back up to Shaun, his facial expression morphed from fear into skepticism, and finally into relief.

I whispered a prayer as Sheamus bounded over the edge and down the various levels of slope, with Shaun sliding down after him.  No problems, as predicted.

Maneuvering a surreal section of the washed out trail

But not all of us walked away unscathed.  Sheamus accidentally set off a rock fall from the broken trail above me.  I dodged as many of those rocks as possible.  Some of the stones bounced off of me harmlessly, though the biggest rock landed directly on top of my left foot.

I didn't realize how badly my foot was injured (making a huge dent in this summer's hikes, climbs, and surfing) until my first step onto hard pavement at the end of the day. Incidentally, this was also the moment where we finally encountered the only remaining "Trail Closed" sign... as we exited onto the return trail towards my Jeep Wrangler.

My overly dramatic pole vault back onto the main trail (with that useless "Trail Closed" exit sign posted on the right)


On our drive home from the Gorge, Shaun thanked me for talking him down from that ledge, literally.  It was a rare moment of paralyzing fear, and he was relieved that someone was there to snap him out of it.  Had we turned back at that late hour, we all would've been stuck on that trail until well after dark. Not to mention, his plan to use the closed (also due to damage) Benson Bridge as an escape route could have incurred a steep fine.

Sometimes the scariest things in life are the things we can't see.  Our imaginations can either create reasons for us to be afraid, or illuminate new ways to move us forward.   And on this eventful day in April, there was no reason to fear.

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