The problem with snow is that it melts, producing torrents of ice cold water. Anna and Dan’s trek down the PCT is bring back memories, some wonderful, some . . . not so much. One that keeps popping into my head took place when I was nineteen, new to hiking, inexperience with the out-of-doors. I was living in Norway, where I first experienced the exhilaration of climbing mountains to gain vistas of distant fjords. I had seasoned instructors who insisted I do it “right”– hardy Norwegians full of instructions: ‘Swing you legs and not your hips; land on your whole foot; don’t walk downhill on your toes, roll through each step.” I still remember climbing the second highest mountain in Norway and hobbling to the bus stop the next morning, alone, while the rest in my party continued on foot.
I was in Norway as a University of California exchange student. We “California students” flew to Paris three days after school got out in June on a chartered plane from LAX. I had never ventured further from the L.A. suburbs than the border towns of Mexico. I was so nervous, I threw up in the airport.
After a quick tour of Paris the ground split up with some headed for the American University in Beirut, some heading for Germany and the rest–about twenty of us–traveling by train and boat, via Copenhagen, to Oslo for summer language school. That summer we enjoyed a delightful season of hiking, picnicking, and swimming in mountain lakes while learning to speak Norwegian.
When fall came a group of us wanted to squeeze in one more outing before the weather turned too cold and the days too short for hiking. Some fellow students, Norwegians, told us about a great weekend hike: you took a bus to the trail head, hiked a short distance to a cabin where you spent Friday night, hiking to another cabin the next day and finished up on Sunday with a short walk and a spectacular ferry ride back to town. The Norweigan lot were planning to take the same trip that weekend–if the weather remained clear.
Later in the week I ran into one of the Norwegian students at the bus stop. “No,” he told me. They weren’t going, rain was forecast for the weekend. They would wait until next summer. We should have realized then that our trip was doomed, but at that moment we were struck by fatal case of machismo. Those Nordic wimps, we thought. They may have descended from Leif Erickson but they weren’t as tough as us American women!
Off we went–four women with heavy packs and head-to-toe rain gear, the kind the fishermen wore in The Perfect Storm. The first leg of the hike was easy. The bus dropped us off at the junction of a winding mountain road and a narrow dirt path through the tundra. We hiked a short distance to the first cabin, or hytta, in the lingering dusk. In the dark we found a set of bunk beds and threw ourselves into them. In the morning it was pouring. But we were undeterred. With no more sense than a wet cat, we set out on our journey.
The hike seemed endless. Each time I lifted my head to search for the top of the mountain pass, I would see what looked like the summit about 100 feet away ensconced in clouds. I was wearing a sowester hat, with a wide brim in back, tied snuggly under my chin, and a narrow brim in front, for visibility I suppose, so my face was wet and I kept my head tucked low. The water ran off the hat onto a raincoat, then onto rain pants and at last onto the rubber boots and the path below my feet. The get-up should have been watertight but after hours of hiking I grew damp at the margins.
It was easy to imagine that the clouds covered the peak, just a few feet away. But each time I stopped and gazed up the scene was repeated. Finally, late in the day we cleared the top. We climbed down the far side of the mountain in silence, each of us focusing our thoughts on the cabin ahead. Warm beds. Food. Heat.
Then suddenly through the driving rain, we spied the cabin a short distance off, only between us and the cabin there was a stream… no a river… no a torrent. The water was so high it swept several feet over the narrow wooden footbridge, which was dangling precariously partly submerged in the rushing water. We stood for a long time staring at the bridge in silence. Then we began to argue. Karen insisted that we should try it. We were so wet, so cold, so hungry–and it was getting dark. We couldn’t make it back up over the mountain again this late, she argued. I couldn’t imagine trying to cross. I remembered having been swept off my feet one summer in a fast-moving stream in Utah, unable to regain my footing in water only knee deep. The water looked so swift, so cold. It seemed suicidal. Karen insisted that we could make it if we held hands and stayed together. Or we could position several people on the banks of the river downstream, she argued, just in case someone slipped.
Finally, too weary to argue any more, I turned and started climbing back up the mountain. I gradually realized that someone was following me, then a third person and finally even Karen.
My friendship with Karen never recovered. She was furious with me for “ruining” the trip. But recently when I recalled that trip, I think I heard God whispering to my heart, You saved her life.
If I who knew so little back then–who could not distinguish the voice of God from all the other voices yammering in my head–could know to turn back, I have to believe that Anna and Dan will also know when to turn back, when to stop, when to move ahead. He is with them, always and evermore.