Updated: Sep 19, 2020
Those two words together do not seem right. Trust me, they certainly do not feel right when experienced. This is a quick glimpse into how even with the proper preparation, proper equipment, and proper training, an experienced hiker can still find themselves in sticky (or frozen) situations, and a guide to staying safe when all plans fail.
July 1st - not yet fully in the heat of summer, but far enough within its grasp that sunshine, cold drinks, barbecues, beach umbrellas, and refreshing pools were the thoughts on most peoples mind. Not so for us. We had just set up our tent in pouring down rain that had been consistent for 48 hours, and it was not yet even noon. Our bodies were frozen, our thoughts molasses, our hearts beating slowly keeping us just above the threshold of the unknown. Speaking to us with each new beat, life.
Well, that was the end result at least. Let's go back to June 30th, the day before, to fully understand how this came to be. It was somewhat chill, the morning we left the small rustic town of Field. Rain was in the forecast for the next 2 days, but with a pleasant temperature of 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Even with the mountains we were heading into and the elevation change, if the temperature dropped another 10-20 degrees we would still be comfortable, albeit a little bit cold. So we humped on our packs and set out. A few old logging roads led us deeper and deeper into the thick vegetation that was the wilderness leading up towards Amiskwi Pass. We felt confident we could reach it that day, even leaving town a little bit later. Quickly, though, our mileage began to flag as blowdowns became the norm. Still it was bearable, we were still on a 3-3.5 MPH pace to comfortably reach the pass by the end of the day. Then it began....
Contorting ourselves around yet another fallen tree, the first rain drop solidified and thudded soundly against my hat. It had felt like rain in the air, but we had hoped it would hold off. This was not meant to be, as the light drizzle began. Clad in our hiking gear of shorts and a quick-dry shirt we had been feeling the chill in the air get deeper, get stronger into our bones. We were exclaiming our puzzlement to each other as we crossed a creek - the temperature did not make sense. We were at low elevation, why were we so cold????? Yet the cold persisted, and so did the rain.
When in the backcountry, rain is a part of your life. It can be slow-moving and uncomfortable, but usually never much more than a slight annoyance, because hey, you're out hiking, it's still beautiful! This time, though, the rain was becoming dangerous. In the space of half an hour, the temperature had dropped significantly to just above freezing, and the rain was so consistent and so thick that nothing was dry. This alone would make for a miserable and possibly short day of hiking, but the third factor that made it dangerous was the bushwhack. This area of trail was really no trail at all. The old logging road we'd been folowing had turned into a trackless maze of thick willows, thick brush, and flooded ground that usually leaned towards not being ground at all, but a creek. This guaranteed that even with all the proper rain gear, each footstep would be a car-wash of water from the vegetation in top of the buckets of water from the sky. Yet we were strong hikers; we have experienced the cold, the wet, the bushwhack, the Suck (as they call it). So we pushed on.
Around 6 or 7 P.M. we stood shivering on the far side of a creek-ford, examining our map systems.There were 3 more intense fords in front of us before the pass, not to mention the lovely surprise fords that we had been encountering due to high snow melt and a record year of rain. Thus after some debate, we agreed upon going another mile or two until finding a suitable flat camp spot. Even this decision was hard. We had both been starting to shake, and our movements were becoming sluggish, but nothing we thought a dry camp wouldn't fix. So we made it to camp and set up in the pouring rain. While setting up camp, we came to find everything was soaked. EVERYTHING. No dry bag known to man could keep out the moisture that was inhaled with every breath that day. Teeth chattering and bodies huddled together for warmth, we drifted off to a fitful sleep, fantasizing tomorrow would be better.
Rain, alarm, rain, alarm, rain.... okay, it's not going to stop, time to actually wake up and commit. It was colder, wetter, more intense this morning. We stepped out of camp already soaked to the bone in our gear, determined to at least get out of this bushwhack. Almost instantly my body began to shiver. The only way to keep "warm" was movement, but that was also sadly the only way to get colder, with new cold from the vegetation and rain re-soaking the body with every step. First creek crossing, okay. Second creek crossing, sketchy but okay. Then came a surprise creek crossing - it was not on our maps as a ford. I got across okay, but was almost knocked off balance with the quickness of the water. My hiking partner was next, and as they got mid-way across, you could see the next step was not secure. They buckled underneath the water pressure and I ran down the bank to where the water would push them, an outstretched trekking pole jammed into the water. Gripping the trekking pole and using the current, they surfaced on the gravel shore, beaten up, bruised, cut, and soaked, but alive.
"You want to make camp here?" I asked teeth chattering and astounded that they were taking this so well.
"No, I'm just startled is all, the adrenaline is keeping me warm."
Yeah... that is one badass hiker right there.
We continued, and the third and final river crossing was the most intense. We made a safety line with out bear rope and went across one at a time, making it safely. But with all the "danger" out of the way, the dangerous hyppthermia we'd been fighting all day was more obvious. This was when it went past serious. On the way up to Amiskwi Pass after the final river crossing, snow patches and snow melt began to feel warm to my broken body. Long ago had I stopped shivering, my body no longer able to find the strength to shake itself for warmth. I couldn't think, I could only do. I knew I could not stop, and as the two trekking poles dragged behind me, my mind went to no thoughts, no comprehension, only move. My hiking partner was in front of me, and they were not far from the same state.
Finally we crested Amiskwi Pass, still blurred in my memory, and came out to a logging road out of the forest. It had not gotten warmer, it had not gotten dryer. It had in fact become the exact opposite, colder and wetter. My hiking partner spoke as a far off echo, and my brain fought to respond. Few words made their way through, though I thought I was answering at a conversational speed. Later, I would realize that my responses were delayed by minutes.
After about 5-10 minutes along the logging road, we knew we could not go further safely. As I fumbled with my pack straps, my partner shivered and struggled through their own personal hell of ice. It took 5 minutes to un-clip one clip on my pack - the muscles would not respond to the thought. At this point my hiking partner realized the situation and, not as deep within the grips of their own hypothermia, shooed me aside to move quicker. Time was of the essence. As I fumbled to help them, my body shut down. Putting one clip on the tent fly once again took me a few minutes of confused effort. My partner was quite literally a life-saver.
The tent was up, and it appeared we were safe - but not yet. After crawling into a previously soaking tent from the night before, previously soaked sleeping bags, previously soaked everything, it was hard to find the necessary warmth to bring us out of our stupor. It took a full hour cuddling under both sleeping bags until my body could even shiver again. Once the shivering started, it racked my entire body for close to another hour. The third hour was when any semblance of self began to re-emerge within the mind. It had been a complete out-of-body experience. The words, the movements, the conversation had come from a primal deeper spot than what my conscious was capable of. We took stock of the situation, and finally declared ourselves uncomfortable but safe.
So, after all is said and done, what could have been done differently to avoid this? I think there are three distinct options that could have changed this outcome.
Stay in Field
This option would have been the only way to completely avoid this situation. Upon experiencing the terrain, the bushwhack, and the weather, we both agreed this would have been the best option. We did not know how thick the vegetation was coming out of Field, and if we had known that would be coupled with a extremely unseasonable cold front, this is the decision we would have made.
2. Call Shorter Days
This option, which could work in theory, would not have been practical. The way this portion of the trail is situated means that until you get out of the valley beneath Amiskwi Pass, you are literally stuck within a bushwhack and a cold weather inversion. By not knowing how long this influx of weather would last, this did not feel like the appropriate and safe decision. In fact, it could have led to more trouble if the system did not pass, forcing us to make our way in the cold with even less food in reserve. We talked this over while in the tent, and agreed it was not the right move to make.
3. Turn Around
This would have been the drastic last option, turning around and going back to Field. We were already deep into the bushwhack when it started to get uncomfortable and then dangerous, and it was quicker and safer to move forward out of the bushwhack in case we did need emergency assistance. So while I put this option in here, it was not really an option at all. In other situations, it could very well be the right call.
As you can see there is nothing about gear, wrong decisions, mistakes, or second guesses that would have changed the outcome. Besides staying in Field, this was quite unavoidable. After taking a re-stock and a trip report, we both believe to have taken the safest option, even when it led to such a drastic outcome. There was just no way around it.
With all of this said, this is an opinion of a hiker that went through this experience, and lived to tell about it. Always listen to your gut, and if you're not comfortable with doing something, simply do not. If we were not able to get over Amiskwi Pass when we did, we would have been forced to emergency camp at high elevation, which would have led to its own problems. Each situation is different, each person is different, so when looking forward at a trail or a section, go in prepared with the current weather status and make a back-up or emergency plan.
I want to end this with a gigantic shout out to my hiking partner. They were so strong and resilient while they themselves were going through an incredibly difficult time up on Amiskwi. I truly do not take it lightly when I say might not be here without them. You know who you are, you know what you are made of (STEEL) and you are amazing! Also, to all those hiking partners out there that trails would not be the same without!
We would love to know how others would have handled this situation, so if there is something different you would have done please let us know in the comment section. Or simply leave a comment saying hello!