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Reader Essays: The Ridge of Defeat

Barrie Imhoff tempts fate in Glacier National Park.

How I came to be clinging to a steep slope of ice-cold, muddy soup, bleeding, alone, and off-trail in Glacier National Park is a long story, so I’ll spare you the details. It was the kind of thing you don’t want to tell even your friends, an embarrassment of huge proportions. I was in over my head on my first day out and I was contemplating the unimaginable—giving up. Oh, the shame! It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t obsessed about this hike for so long. For months, a photo of Sperry Glacier—the precise spot where I ran into trouble—had gleamed at me from my computer screen. From the comfort of my office chair, I studied every detail of the cross-country Floral Park route, and chatted with online advisers who assured me that it was a piece of cake. Find the cut in the wall, stick to the left, walk along the ridge … It sounded so easy! 


Then why on earth was I having a heart attack when the quiet image from my computer screen came into view? The pretty photo I knew so well had come to life like a giant beast. Glacial melt roared down the mountain. But I knew that turning around would mean a lifetime of what-ifs. What I didn’t know was that just four days earlier, another hiker had set out on the same route and was never heard from again.


Yi-Jein Hwa and I had nothing in common but our love of the outdoors and—I am guessing—that ridge and its astounding view. Hwa had planned his trip as I had, studying every detail. His first day at Glacier was much like mine: He set out from Logan Pass, where he headed south with throngs of sightseers to Hidden Lake. Beyond the lake the crowds—and the trails—disappeared. 


My problems began on the climb behind Hidden Lake. I broke through the crust of a snowfield. With each step I took, the icy layers gave way. I was forced to slide on my butt. Blood from my knee mixed with the mud. I was a mess. Dejected and beaten, I made camp, thinking I’d give it another shot in the morning. But already my subconscious knew it was over.


After my retreat, a ranger asked me if I had seen a tall man carrying a blue Kelty backpack. I learned that Hwa likely disappeared on the Floral Park route on his first day out. When I realized that I had followed in the missing hiker’s footsteps, I had to sit down. Could I have been the next person on that route? Maybe he was out there, injured but alive, as I studied the glacier from the top of that first ridge. Had I continued to Sperry Glacier, would his fate—or mine—have been the same? 


Imhoff lives in West Palm Beach, FL. Favorite hike: Off-trail in Glacier’s Blackfoot Basin region—despite this setback.

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