What are you doing up here?!
Back in May of 2007, I had been living in the Seattle area and would frequently go on exploration hikes. I would get in the Jeep and drive to some general idea of a location. This was usually as defined as, I'm going west today and see what I find. I was always looking for someplace pretty to explore. It was a time before I considered myself a photographer or had even really thought about what that meant. I was on the look out for an afternoon get-a-way. I had a camera and a tripod although I really didn't know how to use either very well. On these explorations, I would drive until I found something that looked interesting, stop and check it out. On this day in May, it was a beautiful spring day. I had stopped earlier at Lake Cushman. After spending maybe an hour here, I decided to move on. Hopped in the Jeep and headed into the Olympic National Forest. This is a lovely drive. Everything was green and lush. Eventually I ended up at a sign for Mount Ellinor. The peak is only 5944' I thought. It's a beautiful day and early enough let's do this. If it gets hairy or looks like I am going to get lost, I can always turn around and walk back down this trail. Easy day hike!
I hopped out of the Jeep, grabbed my light corduroy jacket, backpack with camera gear and strapped on my tripod with a bungee cord and headed up the path. This is nice I thought. There is no one out here. I can hear wild birds chatting with each other. As expected, there was a slight uphill climb on this trail. About 15 minutes into my relaxing hike, I saw a small patch of snow in the shade of a fallen log. Cool, snow! As I continued along, more snow. And more snow. And more snow. It was getting thick but I was on a well defined path. There was no fear of getting lost. I could certainly turn around at any time and be back at the Jeep in about 20 minutes. So I kept going up and so did the snow levels. I actually came to a sign that pointed to the summer trail. At this point, I figured the snow was several feet deep because it came up to the bottom of the sign. The summer trail was nowhere to be found. I kept along the path in the snow. There was now a heavy fog. All you could see was white and the faded evergreens. The path was getting deeper and deeper. It was up to my ankles on the sides of the path. I could see tree tops sticking up out of the snow only a few inches.
Voices! It was like in a movie where you could hear someone talking. But where were they and who are they talking to? The fog was so heavy and the snow sapped up every bit of sound. It was eerily quiet except for these men's voices. I couldn't tell if they were in front of me or behind. Were they coming down and could tell me where this trail leads and what it's like up ahead? I hiked along for what seemed like another half hour hearing these voices in the fog. Finally two men in hiking gear caught up with me from behind. We exchanged "Hi, how are you's?" and they headed on to disappear into the white. As they left, I realized that they were really geared up. They wore ski bibs, had hiking poles and an ice axe. I had never seen an ice axe out on the trail before. Of course, you see them in hiking stores like REI. I had always imagined the extreme ice climbers hanging off an ice waterfall using these, not on a day hike through the snow, which was now up to knee deep along the trail. Here I am in my jeans, t-shirt, green corduroy jacket, good waterproof Merrill hiking boots and of course my camera gear and helpful tripod.
"Gloves would have been good"
I had been hiking for a couple of hours when I came to a clearing in the fog. I could see the two men quite a bit ahead of me but could no longer hear their voices. While I was in the clearing, I decided to check in with my girlfriend (now wife) just to let her know approximately where I was and how cool this place was. She could tell I was a bit off and convinced me I needed to eat something so I ate my only granola bar. Poor planning on my part number 378, I think. Note to self: next time more food and maybe a warmer jacket. Gloves! Gloves would have been good.
As I neared the top, it became very steep. The snow path was now a deep trench up to my waist. It was about 18 inches wide. I could see over near some rocky outcroppings the form of another person coming up from a different direction. He had hiking poles helping him up a very steep incline. He also had some gear strapped to his back although through the fog, I couldn't exactly tell what. It looked too that he had casts on his legs. He was wearing shorts! What the? I could no longer complain about my now frozen jeans.
"Ice axe and heavy boots are required"
Finally, I could see the top of Mount Ellinor. At this point, I didn't know that it was Mt. Ellinor. I had taken a pic of the sign at the trail head, but mainly for just in case I needed the map or some other useful info, like "Ice Axe and heavy boots are required". Had I read the sign instead of just taking a pic of it, I would have noticed these exact words along the bottom left side of the sign. Note to self: next time, read the sign before the hike.
I had finally made it to the top. I met up with the three guys I had seen on my way up, the two "voices" and the one in shorts with gear on his back. That gear happened to be short hiking skis. We chatted for a minute he then strapped on his skis and and tore off down the way he had come up.
That left me and the two "voices" guys on top of this mountain in the middle of the wilderness of Olympic National Forest. They were very nice and generous too. They noticed that I didn't have a snack and shared their feast of fruit and nuts with me. This got the attention of a chipmonk. He had to come check us out. As we ate and chatted, one of the guys decided it was time to ask. "What are you doing up here?" This came out most likely in reference to my very obviously unprepared state. I think even the chipmonk was wondering what I was doing up there. I said I was out hiking and taking photos. What else would I be doing with this 25 pound pack with no food or water ( I had two bottles of water but had finished them by this point) and a tripod bungeed to it? I knew it had been a rhetorical question. I looked at all their trekking gear and was pretty proud that I had made it up without all that and had extra stuff. I had to ask though. "What are the ice axes for?" I was then told how you get down off this mountain.
The ice axes are used to stick in the side of that trench of a path as you sit and slide down the mountain. I didn't have an ice axe. I was gonna have to find a different way to get down. I sent the guys on their way and watched them slide down. Looked like fun! I was alone with the chipmonk on this mountaintop. It was awesome. But alas I had to get down before it got too late. I started marching large steps down the deep snow trench of a path. Every step plunged my boot deep into the snow. Note to self: waterproof boots don't let water (melted snow) out either. Gaiters would have been nice. I decided to sit and try their method of sliding. This was a bit out of control. I just knew I was going to roll an ankle. Then I had an idea! My tripod! I could use it like an ice axe and jab a leg into the side walls to slow me down. Yeah, that didn't work. Now, my jeans are frozen all the way up, not just below the knees. Note to self: that's what the ski bibs were for. Doh!
I had settled on just hiking my way down. My boots were full of water, my pant legs full of snow and I was hungry. The hike down wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It didn't seem to take too long and I was back in to the thin patches of snow in the shadows and back into the green forest with the sqwaking birds. I finally made it back to the Jeep. Man, that heater on the feet felt better than it ever had before.
Do you have a photo trek that you learned some important life lessons?
1. Always read the sign
2. Always bring more food and water than you think you need
3. Have the proper gear
4. "What are you doing up here?" can refer to what we are trying to accomplish in life too. I was in up to my ears but swam with the sharks and still came out the other side. I have done what others thought couldn't or shouldn't be done. I overcame doubt with vision and self determination. I came out stronger and smarter.