“If you cannot find the trail, you’ve gone the wrong way,” I told my son as we ascended the Alpental Valley towards Snow Lake.
It was Father’s Day and Levi had just turned 14. To celebrate, I decided to take him on a hike that would be challenging, yet not too difficult. I did not know that I would end up putting him one false step from his death.
Living in Seattle gave us quick access to the North Cascades. For our afternoon adventure, I chose a high lake that would remain frozen until July. It is appropriately called “Snow Lake” and is of moderate difficulty, 7.2 miles, out and back, with 1800 feet of elevation gain.
The trailhead begins in Alpental Valley. Spring avalanches had left broken trees and piles of ice in the parking lot. Today’s avalanche danger was low, so we shrugged it off and proceeded to the trail. After hiking a mile of steady incline, we left the forest and began to cross a steep section of the valley wall. There we encountered something I had not expected; the trail was covered with fresh snow, obscuring the path. I knew the general direction of the lake, so we proceeded through the snow. The valley ends with several prominent peaks jutting above steep ridgelines. Snow Lake was just over one of the ridges.
We climbed towards the ridge to the Northwest, just below Chair Peak. Waterfalls cascaded down the mountain tops, disappearing into the snowfields above us. These streams tunneled into the snow, flowing towards the valley floor. The route I took went directly below a large waterfall, and I could hear the roar of the river beneath our feet. Snow bridges are very dangerous. There is no way to know how strong they are. I took quick and careful steps forward on the snow bridge, leading my son along. My heart was racing as I put the weight of my body onto each step. The bridge held fast.
We climbed towards the ridgeline and the snow under our boots became harder, and steeper. Soon we found ourselves standing on an angled sheet of ice. I could still hear water rushing below the surface of the snow we were hiking on, intensifying my nervousness.
I convinced myself that I was going the right way, and we pushed our way further up the ridge. We did not have ice axes or crampons. Looking down the icy slope I knew that if we slipped, we would slide a half-mile or so, accelerating as we slid, until we flew into a boulder field of ice, to our deaths.
I looked at Levi and he was looking back at me with uncertainty.
A wave of fear washed over me, gripping my heart. What if he slipped? What was I doing? It is one thing to risk oneself, but to risk your son? I had led him into a dangerous place and he had followed me. Accidents happen in these mountains all the time! What was I thinking? My heart was racing and I could see my breath in the icy mountain air.
“Dad, I thought you said if it feels like you are off the trail, you probably are. This doesn’t feel right,” Levi reasoned.
I looked up the slope where there was no trail. I looked down the slope to the rocks far below us. I understood he was speaking with wisdom. Getting down was not going to be easy.
“Yeah. This is too icy. We need to head back. Be careful on the ice. Take your time getting back down. Bend your knees and watch every step. One safe step at a time,” I pleaded with him.
As I looked back in the direction we had come from, across the valley I noticed a clear zig-zag line going up the opposite ridge. I knew that I was now looking at the correct route. A crucial switchback had been buried by fresh snow and I had missed a turn.
With great fear and trepidation, we carefully worked our way back down towards the actual trail. The ice became softer, and we crept across the snow bridge towards the correct route. Once on the actual trail, the hike was safe, stable, and straightforward. Two miles later, we crested the top of the ridge were greeted with a spectacular view of the white, circular frozen lake, far below us.
Sometimes it is easier to give good advice than it is to take it yourself. The lessons gained by near-misses and second chances are moments of grace that are not guaranteed. This was not the only time my foolishness needed an application of grace.
One essential skill for glacier crossing is “self-arrest”. It is an important technique in the event that one slips on a glacier starts sliding. Glacier travel requires wearing crampons (spikes that go over your boots) and carrying an ice axe.
Four months later, Reed and I were doing a “snow and ice” climb up an easy scramble in the North Cascades. It was late October and there was plenty of snow on the ground. As we ascended towards the summit, we soon found ourselves in the clouds where snow began falling, soon creating whiteout conditions. There was no sign of the snow abating, so after losing the route a couple of times, we made a smart decision and decided to descend as quickly as possible in order to get out of the clouds.
Sure enough, it was not long before we emerged out of the cloud, and onto the snowfield, we had crossed on the way up.
Before getting too far down the mountain, we decided that this was a good opportunity to use the snowfield to practice self-arrest. We talked about how it should be done, and we practiced putting our full weight on the axe as we faced uphill on the mountain while lying on our stomachs.
Knowing the basic positioning, we started practicing by going for short slides before using the self-arrest technique to stop.
During my fourth slide, something terrifying happened.
I was sliding comfortably along, beginning the process of stopping myself by digging my ice axe into the snow. I had not been paying attention to how far down the mountain I had slid.
Suddenly, as I was sliding on my belly while facing uphill, the snow underneath me gave way and I was falling. My heart leaped with fear and confusion and I fell into the crevasse. It happened in a flash but once I was airborne, time slowed down. I wondered how deep it was and how far I was going to fall.
Instinctively I cried out in fear, and in a split second my back crashed against the ice wall forming the other side of the crevasse. I fell vertically and unexpectedly landed on my feet at the bottom. It was only eight feet deep.
As the adrenaline flooded my system, I looked up, smiled, and laughed with embarrassment and gratitude as I chided myself for being so careless. I had failed to notice the open crevasse that cut across that snowfield. I was fortunate that it was not deeper. I was fortunate that I had landed without injury. I was fortunate that it had not been a cliff.
It is easy to get so preoccupied with what we are doing that we fail to notice the dangers that we are headed towards. Pride tempts us to continue going off course into dangerous situations. Wisdom is constantly present if we will give heed to her voice.
Proverbs 8:1-11 (NIV)
1 Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? 2 At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; 3 beside the gate leading into the city, at the entrance, she cries aloud: 4 “To you, O people, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. 5 You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, set your hearts on it. 6 Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. 7 My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. 8 All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. 9 To the discerning all of them are right; they are upright to those who have found knowledge. 10 Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, 11 for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Lesson learned: If it feels like your life is going off course, stop. You probably are. Reassess your direction. Turn around if necessary. Pay attention to the trajectory your momentum might carry you. Look ahead and use caution.
• When have you persisted in a direction that you later regretted?
• What kept you going that way and what eventually caused you to change direction?