Surviving the Death March

All hikes end. Sometimes that's a blessing.
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All hikes end. Sometimes that's a blessing.
rainier and carbon glacier

Photo by mountainamoeba

We stopped talking to each other somewhere near Dick Creek.

The trail hugged a sun-blasted slope that ran down toward the dirty maw of Mt. Rainier’s Carbon Glacier—a sight that, on a normal day of hiking, would have wowed us. Instead, I watched Brad’s boot heels kick up volcanic dust. I tapped each interminable stone step with my poles. The sun was on the move, but our only map—the cute, illustrative kind from the entrance station—couldn’t tell us how far we had to go. There were no contour lines. We’d already gone the length of a middle finger, and there was at least an index finger left.

It started the way all death marches do: unintentionally. Our plan was to backpack 8 miles through a huge, wildflower-studded meadow called Grand Park to an alpine lake, where we’d catch up—over couscous and whiskey—on all the years since we graduated from college. We’d leisurely retrace our steps the next morning. But when we got there, it was too early to stop for the day. Plus, the mosquitoes were so thick they practically bristled. In response, we figured out that we could keep moving along the entire so-called Northern Loop, and suddenly the very specific wilderness itinerary we’d planned became a mere suggestion.

And, OK, we used to date. Briefly. I think I wanted to impress him, and I like to think he wanted to impress me. Much later, too late, we found out our swap added up to 37 miles and 9,000 feet of elevation gain. Platonic city.

The signs that you’re on a true death march are several, and they don’t always appear in the same order. The roller coaster, however, is part of the deal. Energy: This is so badass. Resignation: This is a lot harder/longer. Slap-happiness: OK, now the situation is hilarious! Loaded silence: Time to think about regret, boredom, sexual tension (maybe), and cheeseburgers. Hatred: Hiking, and your partner, are actually stupid. Hope: This is doable. And, finally, resignation: Anyway, there’s no choice.

Walking death road might result from a reasonable day turned painful (maybe you develop Achilles tendonitis on the far end of a remote loop in Lassen and need to backpack a dozen miles in flip-flops). It might be a misguided decision (inexplicably picky, perhaps you pass a half-dozen Kings Canyon campsites and wind up at the car a day early, grinding 20-plus miles). Hiking 18 miles round-trip from the parking lot up Half Dome at night to see sunrise from the top? Yes. Hauling 50 pounds of gear and water for 11 miles along the deeply sandy edge of the Great Sand Dunes? I can assure you: yes.

You end up on a death march because you change your mind midstream, or you think you can pull off a Heather “Anish” Anderson from the couch. You waltz to a summit and forget about what the going-down part does to your toenails. You miscalculate.

Remember, if you bank on a death march, it’s no death march: You must be grossly or even just slightly unprepared. You must be too soaked, cold, starving, or stubborn to turn back. The toughest of marches force you to go well beyond what you thought you could handle, approaching do or (possibly) die. And then? You bond. You persevere. You reminisce, repeatedly.

Brad and I ended up on a death march in every way. We managed to get to 5,600-foot Windy Gap as the sun sank, but pitched our tent in an off-axis bog teeming with skeeters. At first light, we descended 3,000 feet of switchbacks past the crosscut saw of the Yellowstone Cliffs, chatting merrily. Then the exposed slog past Dick Creek completely muted us; there weren’t even any turns in the path to distract us from the tenderized meat of our quads.

Inevitably, sometime after that, after the awe of glimpsing Rainier’s summit and icy Willis Wall, we got a seventh wind. Because that’s the most important hallmark of a death march: more winds than you can count, more than enough to teach you a lesson about both humility and determination. We ditched our packs and jumped into Mystic Lake. With wet hair, we flew through the lupine. We started speaking again, then stopped, then started. Somehow we knew another wind would come, just enough to push us home