Let me tell you a story of what it was like for me to go too deep within the wilderness. On August 15th, 2019 I found myself upside down on a backpack sized ice shelf inside a glacial crevasse on Mount Shasta. This blog entry begins with the final day of a 37 day trek across the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon and California on a series of rugged trails and cross country routes summiting seven sacred mountains. I will follow up with writings of the days leading up to my fall, so please subscribe to this blog to stay tuned in for the whole journey.
The Wilderness exists within each and every one of us. We are part of the beautiful nature that we idolize through media and art, as though it were separate from us. In the materialistic human world we have created, our hearts long for something more – something beautiful, natural and Wild. It can be especially humbling to be reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around us tiny humans, but that we are merely One part to a complex system of life among the great mountains, plains, valleys, glaciers, rivers, and oceans of this incredible living planet. Leaving the confines of our domestic world is something we all need to do to gain a greater perspective on our existence and our role in the world at large – but it is possible to go too far beyond our own limits. How deep into the wilderness is too deep? In this blog I will describe one experience in all of my trekking that took me so deep into the wilderness, that it nearly swallowed me whole…
It was our final day of a long walk through the mountains, the seventh summit of the Siskiyou Peaks Trail, and the grand finale to an amazing journey as the first “thru-hikers” of this 448 mile route. We were excited and a little nervous to summit Mount Shasta, a 14,179 foot actively growing volcano in Northern California. We had been staring at her snowy banks for weeks now as we made our way through some of the most beautiful and least explored backcountry in the West.
Duncan, my hiking partner, and I camped just above tree-line where a large pristine spring burst from the earth where we would refill our bottles by morning and continue the ascent. We had spent the last five weeks drinking mostly from natural mountain springs (filtering from streams and rivers when unavailable). At these springs we could truly take into our bodies the water from the mountains we walked through, assimilating its minerals and becoming more deeply connected to our environment. I felt it was a way for me to more deeply integrate with each landscape of my ever changing wilderness environment.
As we hiked upward, I moved in what felt like slow-motion to allow my body to acclimate to the high elevation. The terrain became steeper and steeper but by this point in our journey my body was very strong. My breath and my steps steady and in rhythm. All I could see around me was rock, snow, open sky, and the distant town of Mccloud down on the forest floor. There was only one kind of creature sharing the mountain with us, and I was aghast at their tenacity to be in such a harsh landscape. Hundreds of thousands of butterflies were flying up to the summit like a river of soft fluttering wings.
I took comfort in their gentle flight as I walked up the mountain alongside these heavenly beings, climbing… and climbing. The summit looked so close from our campsite but many hours kept passing. It was so much farther than I thought it would be. Nearly six hours had passed when we got to the headwall. Tears welled up in my eyes as I climbed the steep, rocky wall with my hands as volcanic boulders slipped beneath my feet. I tried to ignore the visions of massive rock slides burying me for eternity. I wanted to go back to that natural mammalian habitat below the tree-line where I belonged. I pushed through my fears and continued moving forward until we topped out on the summit plateau of Mount Shasta.
The summit was still another hundred feet or so up some crags. I was grumpy and just wanted to go back down and nearly did not even get to the official summit until Duncan said his plan was to go up and he invited me to come along. I went without any convincing. I made it this far, I thought I may as well. I probably won’t die… It was not the most ecstatic summit of my life, I’m embarrassed to admit. But hey I made it to the top! We completed the final summit and it was finally time to go back down, but I knew going back down was not going to be easy.
The kaleidoscope of butterflies were still flowing up to the summit from the forest thousands of feet below, skimming above the icy snowfields and freezing cold rocks. I didn’t understand what they were doing there and why they were the only living things on the mountain besides us. I saw one of them standing still on a rock, wings erect and torn to shreds. Amazed by her simultaneous strength and fragility, I witnessed her knowing she would surely die…
I checked my watch. It was already after four p.m. How did so much time pass? I pondered the idea that we might not have enough daylight to get down and we may need to camp at the summit. I pushed the thought away, wanting to stay committed to just getting down this mountain. The thought escapes my mouth and so we discuss. We agree that it is safest to stay the night since we don’t know how challenging the route ahead is, and we don’t want to get caught in the dark hiking cross-country down a mountain covered in glaciers and cliffs. I was filled with anxiety. My instinct telling me to get the hell out of there but my logic telling me that there is no other option. I needed to sit tight and be patient, at over 14,000 feet elevation in a place where no other animals dare to visit.
We made camp earlier than normal knowing it would get very cold. Duncan cooked dinner while I put up the tent, made my bed and put on all my clothing layers. We ate a hot meal and got into bed for the long night ahead, still bright outside at six thirty. I got up to pee at around eight thirty and was mesmerized by the otherworldly landscape before my eyes. The moon was full and just rising while the sun had just set, sending a beam of orange light across the world. A barren landscape of rocks and snow surrounded me, nothing but the sound of gently whipping wind.
To calm my nerves Duncan told me the second chapter of a story he had been making up while on our trek. It was the story of Chen Wo and Kahn, two boys on a magical journey through the mountains to find their father who had gone looking for the rivers of gold and silver. Free-style story telling is one of his gifts. I fell into sleep when the little brother, Kahn held the silver egg his father had given him and wished to go back home.
At three a.m. I awoke to strong smells of sulfur flowing into the tent from the sulfur vent up on the peak. I knew the oxygen was much thinner at fourteen thousand feet elevation, but because of the breeze and open space around us, I had some confidence that the tent would not fill with sulfur. I convinced myself I was safe but laid awake awaiting sunrise. When the sun was up I felt relaxed enough to fall back to sleep, telling myself it would be too icy if we left too early in the morning, anyway. When the sun hit the tent we arose from our mountain nest and began preparing for the descent.
I tried eating breakfast while we packed up, but I was unable to take any food in without feeling sick. So on an empty stomach, we began walking down from the summit plateau toward Misery Hill. I kept telling myself it wouldn’t be so bad, and that it would likely be easier than I originally thought. As we descended, rivers of butterflies were still flowing up the mountain over the snow. I watched them in awe and held their symbolism of strength and fragility in my heart. I came to one that had fallen and died in the snow and melted a small hole into it with the heat of its tiny little body. I spent a moment with it and shared it with Duncan before hiking on.
We got down the first little hill we mistakenly thought was the bottom of Misery Hill and started heading north toward a valley that Duncan believed was the beginning of the West Face. I kept looking at the route photo in our guide book. It looked like we were supposed to climb another hill to the west. I didn’t think we were going the right way.
I sat down and stared at the map, the guide instructions, and the GPS. I saw what he saw, but I also saw the way I thought was correct. Unfortunately, I was so anxious to get down that my normal highly rational and practical nature was compromised. I just wanted to throw it to the wind and follow him and get off the mountain as quickly as we could. I wanted to trust him because I was not feeling confident. I was out of my element, and he was brimming with confidence.
We arrived to the edge of a cliff with ice and water rushing over its edge, tears unabashedly flowing as I carefully make my way across them trying not to imagine my death. I look down into the valley covered in what looked like snow, and said to Duncan “in the guide book this is supposed to be scree”. He justified that it was a big snow year and so we would glissade it. I mention again that in the route photo the West Face appears to be over there, I pointed West. He told me we could no longer see the route from the vantage point the photo was taken and that it was of no use to us anymore. I acquiesced, still unsure and afraid.
Duncan says again we can glissade it, and that it’ll be fun, apparently. I look down the slope seeing about three miles of white with some inconsistencies and small rocks. I point to what looks like a “ditch” in the snow down the way. Certainly that ditch couldn’t be a…crevasse? No… I suddenly had an image of myself inside a crevasse pass through my mind, but I have watched so many “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” episodes that I figure that the extreme image in my mind is just from fear and my memories of crazy things that have happened to other people. Thoughts of calling for rescue cross my mind, but I know there is no reason for that. I begin positioning myself above Duncan at the lip of the cliff onto the “snow”.
Together we slid, digging my heals into the hard, icy “snow” (it isn’t snow because it is a glacier, but we haven’t figured this out yet) to create traction and slow us down. Only a few seconds passed when suddenly our bottoms left the snow and we were launched into the air. I held tightly onto Duncan until we hit the ground. He smashed into the snow hard and broke my fall. I thought it would end at our landing, reassuring thoughts flashing through my mind that this wasn’t so bad, but I kept going and sliding headfirst on my back downhill, until I stopped.
Time slowed down as I began to cognate my situation. Now lying on my back, my head was downhill of my feet. To my left and to my right were tunnels of ice going farther down into the darkness of the glacier, beneath me an ice ledge just big enough to hold my small body. It was a lot like you would imagine sliding down a slide head first on your back and stopping at the lip of the slide. Fifteen to twenty feet above me I saw the blue sky through the opening of the crevasse, and all around me and on top of me were giant dripping icicles. I carefully removed two large icicles from on top of my body that had broken off and fallen on me. Duncan’s voice called down to me, his words straight to the point, “Are you alive?”
“Yes I’m alive” I responded, “Can you stand up?” He said, “I’ll try” I told him. He watched me struggle to get up and told me to unbuckle my backpack. Once unbuckled I was able to stand up, grab my headlamp, my whistle, and cell phone from my pack before leaving it on the ledge. I walked the few feet toward the ice wall where I began digging holes into the wall with my trekking poles for my feet to stand in. I climbed up one step at a time, checking the service bars on my cell phone until I was ten feet above where I landed and was able to make the call to 911. It was a miracle. I was soaked from all the freezing water that poured onto me from the melting snow and icicles inside the glacier, including my phone and yet it worked and even somehow had enough service to make a call.
All the while as I climbed and took all the steps I could to get myself out of this ice cave, I was calm and had no concept of pain in my body. I noticed a chunk of something black on my nose in my peripheral vision, wiping it away and seeing that it was blood. I noticed it again multiple times, wiping it away, and becoming somewhat aware that I must have hit my face but still I had no pain. I spit some blood onto the ice in front of me. I saw more blood on the ice lower down near my leg and I investigated, noticing my knee was scraped. As far as I could tell, I was doing pretty well for what had happened.
Duncan was feeling frustrated and helpless up top, yelling down constantly until I asked him to be quiet. I was afraid he would cause an avalanche that late in the afternoon on such a warm summer day. I also thought it useless and stressful for him to be calling down to me. On the phone with the dispatcher, I asked when the helicopter would be there and they kept telling me just a little while longer. My perception of time was very disoriented, as hours passed while I held my body tense against the wall, waiting, breathing, leaning my head against the ice in silence.
I knew I could not climb any higher, the ice was too old and too hard and slippery for me to even try without crampons. I would surely fall again. Finally, I could hear the helicopter. They kept passing over us and going somewhere over the ridge out of Duncan’s view. I could hear Duncan grunting with frustration, helplessly waiting and wishing he could do something to help me. The helicopter came back and I looked up, feeling that soon I would get my first glimpse of it. Sure enough, I saw it.
The belly of the helicopter read RESCUE and I felt a sense of relief. I remained still, patiently waiting until I heard Duncan’s voice, this time he wasn’t speaking to me. The rescuers had landed somewhere safe and the Mountain Ranger made his way by foot to us. Their voices sounded so casual while I sat down in the ice hole clinging for my life. Impatiently, I cried out “Please get me out of here!!!” and finally I saw him. The mountain ranger, Nick Meyers, sent down his jacket on a rope and instructed me to tie a really good knot around my waist. I tied a million overhand knots and let him know that I was ready to be extracted.
As soon as they started pulling, the rope slipped up around my ribs and hurt terribly, I couldn’t breath. I cried out in pain because I couldn’t use my feet to help since I had no way to grip the ice. I was like a limp fish being pulled out of the water. They pulled me out without breaking any of my ribs somehow and sat me down onto Duncan’s yellow foam sleeping pad. I cried out in pain and in liberation of being freed from the icy abyss of hell. Nick put his down jacket over my legs because I was shivering violently after having spent three hours soaking wet inside the crevasse. I asked him about my backpack and he said he would get it later. I assumed it was possible that I would never see it again, but that would be okay since I did get to survive the event, after all.
The pilots sent a hoist down to me and scooped me up. Once I reached the helicopter a CHP officer helped me inside. I wrapped my arms around the large man and held onto him like a baby koala as I watched the mountain landscape get further and further away from us. I was overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude to be off the mountain and to feel the sun warming my skin. I was on my way to safety. I get to live another day.
At the hospital, they found no serious injury and sent me home after a warm reunion with some of the rescuers and my hiking partner Duncan who delivered my backpack! It is quite a miracle to be alive at all, and especially to walk away with only some bumps and bruises! I am unbelievably grateful I was able to find cell phone service inside the crevasse and to all the rescuers who helped to save my life. I really love being alive. Can you tell?
This summit experience had been more intense than any of the others. As a woman who spends a lot of time adventuring and navigating in the wilderness, I am usually quite comfortable. This is where I found an edge of my limits and went beyond it. I also definitely had some strong bad feelings about being out there, which may have been telling me danger was ahead.
Thanks for reading! Please subscribe to my blog for further writings on our wild adventure through the Siskiyou Mountains on the Siskiyou Peaks trail, passionately created by Aria Zoner (Author of The Siskiyou Peaks Trail, and The Hot Springs Trail)
Blog written by Abilene Bushong (Aug. 2019) You may not use my content without my permission.