Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 4

In my last post, I left off with a video of myself just after I had experienced my first wild animal encounter, all alone at the top of a mountain in the middle of the Colorado wilderness. I was completely terrified, wondering how many of those things were lurking in the willow bushes staring at me, and knowing Amy was just beyond those bushes and would be returning on that path at any moment.

With a little Photoshop wizardry, I tried to recreate the scene for you. First I took a screen shot from my video at about 00:20, then I added the scary creature in the spot he appeared, trying hard not to exaggerate its size.

Here’s what I came up with… click to see photo.

It turns out my wild creature is called a marmot… a yellow-bellied marmot to be exact. Pronounced “MAR-mit,” it belongs to the squirrel family and lives in mountainous regions. I had never even heard the word before, although I had noticed it in several places, like on my sleeping bag, and the backs of people’s rain jackets. Little did I know the company was named after a terrifying mountain squirrel. All along I’d been saying “mar-MOH,” thinking it was French. (By the way, here’s another vernacular tip for my fellow non-mountaineers… the word carabiner is pronounced cara-BEE-ner, not cara-BI-ner like I’ve always said. You can thank me now for saving you this embarrassment later. And if you don’t even know what I’m talking about, just move along.)

Now, back to the moment at hand. I’m sitting by myself, exhausted, terrified, wondering if Amy is ever coming back or whether the scary creature got her. Thankfully, she appeared just moments later, still carrying her empty water bottle. She reported that she could see the lake but couldn’t figure out how to get down to it. It was surrounded by willow bushes and rock ledges, so getting drinking water was turning out to be a challenge.

I told Amy about the huge scary creature. I said it stood at least 3 feet high (I was not kidding, though I admit it was standing on an incline) and it was right in the path where she had just returned. She wasn’t concerned in the least. She told me it was a marmot. No big deal, they’re harmless. The only problems they’ve ever had with them is when they ate the handles off their hiking poles.

Marmots were the furthest thing from Amy’s mind. She was intent on getting water and decided to try another path to the lake, this time in the other direction. Even though I was terrified to go back into those willow bushes, I was even more terrified to stay there alone again, so I followed along. We started up another path, but found it hard to believe it could be so far or difficult to get down to the water. Clearly other people had stayed at this camp site. How did they do it?

We returned to the camp site and sat down. She asked me how I was feeling. I said fine. She, however, was not fine. She was feeling a little confused and disoriented, and was worried she may be suffering the effects of altitude sickness. She said she wasn’t thinking clearly, and she needed my help.

In that moment, she looked at me and I looked at her, and I’m pretty sure we were both thinking the same thing. Holy crap. We are all each other’s got.

Then, Amy made a decision. We were going back down the mountain to the second creek crossing so we could get water and get back to a lower altitude. This was a serious situation. She told me to grab my day pack, rain suit, water bottle, and some snacks. We would wait for the others at the creek and then hike back up with them.

I did what she asked, but was a little shook. As we began our descent, I started in with a few questions. “So, what exactly are the symptoms of altitude sickness? You’re not going to pass out on me or anything, are you?”

She told me she might get confused, belligerent, or might start saying things that didn’t make any sense. If that happened, she would need my help to make good decisions. We crossed a tiny stream that trickled across the top of our path, and I told her I wanted to stop and fill my water bottle… just in case. She said not to drink that water… it was too close to the path and could be contaminated by animal feces. I decided to fill my water bottle anyway. I figured if she passed out, she wouldn’t care about a little animal feces in her water. We kept walking.

As concerning as this whole situation was, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed going DOWN the mountain vs. up it. Without a 40+ pound pack on my back, I actually felt like I was floating. Perhaps I was also getting delirious, but it was all so enjoyable, I decided maybe I should start a new business for people who just want to get dropped off at the top of a mountain and go down instead of up. It was brilliant. I couldn’t wait to pitch the idea on Shark Tank.

We kept walking.

After about 30 minutes or so, we reached our destination and found Joan, Patrice, Lucy, Michelle, and Bill just coming across the creek. I think they were as happy to see us as we were to see them. The ladies were exhausted, and they wanted to know how much further it was to the top. Keep in mind, they had already hiked 2 1/2 miles back to the car from the Shagri-La Meadow to get the rest of the food, then another 2 1/2 miles back up, THEN put on their heavy packs and climbed another 2 1/2 miles up to this point. At the end of the day, it would be an eight mile hike for them, and an elevation climb from 9,000 feet to 11,800 feet. I didn’t know how to break it to them that they still had another hour of climbing from where we were.

I just have to mention Bill here. He is 73 years old and only has one lung. As a child, he came down with a rare bronchial infection and had to have one of his lungs removed. However, this has not slowed him down one bit. Today, he is the only one who has never missed one single JWRC Wilderness Trek. He has been on mountain hikes and wilderness trips all over the world, including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and much of Europe. It was comforting to know we were with someone who had so much experience and so incredibly much stamina. While the rest of us were completely spent, it seemed Bill could go on forever.

Hiking back up the trail after meeting Bill and the ladies at the creek crossing.

Hiking back up the trail after meeting Bill and the ladies at the creek crossing.

As for Amy, she was feeling much better at this point. We filled our water bottles at the creek, popped some iodine pills into the water, then began the long 30 minute wait before we could drink it. We took the ladies’ tents from their packs to help lighten their load a bit, then we started back up the mountain.

We finally made it back to the camp site around 5:30pm or so. Within a half hour, Tim, Jordan, and Jerry arrived with the daypacks full of food that Bill and the ladies had retrieved from the cars earlier in the day. We were shocked by how quickly they had made it back up the mountain again. Amy and I had passed them around 2:45pm or so, meaning they had made the whole round trip, six mile (steep!) hike in a little over three hours.

Bill wanted to get the tea going, so the rest of us headed down to find the water. After each arriving at the lake from a different direction, we finally settled on one path that seemed the most logical. It wasn’t easy. Every time we went for water it was a 15 minute process, but at least we figured out how to get there.

After dinner, we did the dishes and went straight to bed. I doubt it was even 7pm. I was looking forward to the next day, which Bill called our “recovery day.” I couldn’t wait. I thought I might take some time to write in my journal or figure out if my sleeping pad would work for a lake floaty. But, as I would soon learn, Bill’s idea of a recovery day and my idea of a recovery day were vastly different.

More soon…

P.S. While I was Googling to find a picture of a yellow-bellied marmot, I came across the most amazing video from our friend Troy. Remember Troy? He was the day-hiker with the two dogs we had run into on the trail in my last post. On the exact same day we were hiking the Horn Lakes Trail (July 17, 2016), Troy was taking video which he posted to YouTube. This was such a great find, considering I had neither the will nor wherewithal to be taking many photos on my way up the trail. Also, I am so intrigued by the beautiful spot he stopped for lunch. I have no idea where that was, and it would have made filling our water bottles so much easier! Anyway, enjoy! Watch the video...

NEXT: Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 5…

Upper Horn Lake and Mount Adams. View these images on Flickr...

View these images on Flickr…

1 Comment

  1. Joy – thanks for this morning’s ‘laugh out loud moment’ – a terrifying mountain squirrel!!! The photoshopped picture was great!

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