Hack Canyon, Ch. 6: Of False Summits

As I walked, I muttered.  I do that.  I play out conversations before they happen.  Sometimes I have conversations with myself that I know will never happen or never happen that way, and I play them out in various iterations, testing them for the way they make me feel.  I am always surprised when fragments of those speeches, scripted by me in the absence of any interlocutor and with no intention of ever using them bubble up in the actual conversations that ensue.

In knew my co-leader, Robin, and I would be debriefing the event in time.  His leaving the map we worked so hard to get in the car constituted a screw-up of no small measure, not for the slip of mind, the forgetting, but for the lack of awareness that forgetting the map had put the group at risk.  It was the void of concern that allowed the forgetting to happen that troubled me most.

I had left my pack where I had left the group and so I was able to walk fast.  I had a rain jacket and a water bottle, and the stepped cadence of my pace against which to think it all through.

My intuition – the teacher in me – very naturally raised the question, “What is the right thing to do?  What does Robin need to hear from me right now?  What is the right speech in this moment?”

The outdoor leader in me sighed and held back despair.  How many more times can this happen?  How many more challenges can we meet?  Things had just begun to go smoothly and now this.  Not that walking a mile and a half back to get the map was anywhere close to breaking the deal, but this after everything else, coupled with how unnecessary it was, and how avoidable, I found difficult to take.  And the group, in this weather, in this canyon, shouldn’t be split.

And it felt somehow like a false summit.  Hiking out of camp this morning and settling into a rhythm with everything we needed on our backs had felt like arriving.  Finally.  And then this.  Again.  Like a false summit.  The feeling of pushing oneself for so long on the slopes of a mountain, all to gain a summit, to get somewhere, and feel something, waiting and working to feel something, and then attaining the mountain peak to find that it is just one more summit in a succession of summits and the next one is still 2000 feet up and 2 miles distant.  There’s nought to do but sigh, keep back despair, and keep moving.  Just keep reacting, keep making good decisions, and keep moving forward.

As in life, I suppose.

Soon I began to enjoy my solo walk, and I resolved not to bring the mistake up with Robin, but to let it come up, as I knew it would.  A bit passive, perhaps, but a part of me wanted him to think about it, to stew in it.  A part of me felt that if I addressed it with him straight off, if I gave him the opportunity to own it too soon and move on too easily, it wouldn’t stick.  I wanted this one to stick.  I wanted him to live with it so that it would stick.

And again I felt bad ass – this time for hoofing it back to the car, for retrieving the map without missing a beat, and for mentoring my co-leader.

By the time I got back to my pack, having been to the car and having found the map on the dash where I expected to find it, it was late.  As I hiked on fast down canyon, the diffusion of light through the torment of clouds was dimming.  The fading of the light was imperceptible, but over spans of time I could discern a deepening pall in the canyon.  First detail went in twilight, then larger features, and soon I thought of my headlamp.  Night was drawing the canyon in, shrinking it to the size of what I could see clearly.  Soon, I knew, under the blanketed, starless sky, I would be navigating by a pool of light that shone from my forehead.

Where I pulled off my pack in the wash to retrieve my headlamp there was a skull.  A cow that had died up stream and whose coyote-scattered parts had been washed down with the cobbles and had come to rest here, where I was resting and searching for a light.  Before I continued on, I propped the skull on the stream bank and stacked a cairn beside it.

The first thunder I heard was far off.  It came as a distant rumble.  I didn’t even see the flash.  But it drew near quickly and in the dark of the night canyon I could see flashes light up the clouds from miles away.

Counting the seconds between light and sound is a habit.  Flash.  One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four, and so on.  It turns out that sound takes about five seconds to travel a mile.  And light travels a mile virtually instantaneously.  That means that if you begin counting when you see a flash of lightning (one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three…), you can gauge the distance of the lightning strike by how many seconds elapse before you hear the thunder.  Five seconds to every mile.  The troubling thing is that lightning bends and slants and can strike miles away from the thunderhead that produced it.  Lightning within eight miles is cause for concern.  Lightning within four miles should initiate a lightning drill.

The canyon was shrouded in total darkness now and the rain came down intermittently. A steady wind buffeted me with 10 to 15 knots.  I wondered how far the group had made it and if there was a real chance that I would miss them in the canyon, walking in the dark and right on by.  And then a flash like the epicenter of a bomb lit up the entire canyon and light pulsed all around me.  Everything was illuminated for a just a moment.  I would have counted the seconds but the thunder came almost instantly.  It was loud.  Boomingly loud.  Louder than one might expect and it shook me.  Reverberating the walls of my chest.  It stopped me in the wash, startled and breathless.  I waited, half expecting it to happen again.  In a few moments the rain came down in sheets.

I hoped and expected, really, that wherever the group was, that last strike had sent my leaders into a lightning drill with the kids.  That was the right thing to do and standard protocol in backcountry situations with students.  But as for me, I kept walking.  I needed to be reunited with the group.  I kept moving forward and I began to mutter again.  Maybe I hadn’t ever stopped, but I began to rehearse conversations with myself that I hoped I wouldn’t have to have.  Conversations about lightning drills, about camp siting, about getting the kids fed and keeping them dry and warm and into their sleeping bags in the tents.  God help us to have the tents set up already.

I think I kind of imagined all sorts of things having gone wrong in my absence.  I knew -or trusted, rather – that they hadn’t but it was a kind of self doubt, I was beginning to realize.  Every new thing that went wrong or not quite right, caused me to doubt the choice to go down into the canyons at all.  Maybe it was the wrong decision.  My worst case scenario involved a kid struck by lightning and rain swelling the dry arroyo in a flash flood, rain turning to snow, and all of our gear getting soaked.  Things were seeming pretty tenuous to me at that moment and they could go from tenuous to very bad very quickly.

As I turned the bend in the rain-wet but as yet not flowing stream bed and saw the single light shining at me from far down canyon, I kept thinking to myself, “Breathe, hold back despair, make good decisions, and keep moving forward.”

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