Adventures of a Novice Hiker – Mt. Baker, Heliotrope Ridge Trail, 08 August 1992

When I recognized item #18 – the World Famous pot set – as being from my earliest hiking days, I remembered that I’d written about my first solo hike back in 1992, one of my earliest solo travels. Half of my lifetime ago, the original writing contains now-meaningless references, tinges of young adult angst, and a now-funny lack of self-awareness. But the story itself is clear and a bit funny, and (to me) a poignant look back at myself, trying on a lifestyle that needed some tailoring to fit properly. Here’s that story, from 25-year-old me.

During the time of which I speak *

Having constructed a life for myself that, for the most part, consists of an individual existence, it seems appropriate that my first adventure in my latest hobby/activity should be a solitary one. I had purchased more gear than I had ever thought I’d own, and was going to “get” to buy still more, and felt more than adequately equipped to experience Mt. Baker from the Heliotrope Ridge Trail as a solo overnight hike.

It never occurred to me to consider that I might be physically unfit for a hike of this level. My only previous hiking experience consisted of beachcombing in Ucluelet (hardly an endurance test) and a quick-paced march up-and-down Hollyburn Mountain. As I’d found neither of these daunting, I did not consider lack of strength, stamina or experience to be an issue. Just knowing I could do it and wanting to would be sufficient (oh, the hubris of youth).

My reasons for wanting to do this ASAP after getting the idea seemed pretty simple: I now had the means, and I had the time. I wanted to prove to myself (and a few others of significance in my life) that I could do it, and wanted to get started before I lost my nerve. I wanted to set everyone’s mind at rest, including my own.

There I am in younger days, star gazing
Painting picture perfect maps of how my life and love would be *

I was up late the night before: packing, planning, re-packing. My backpack ultimately weighed 38 pounds(!), and my boots were still new and only recently water-proofed. I felt ready. I would be up early, pick-up a few last supplies and head for the border.

Saturday morning dawned rainy and grey. I had originally said that I wouldn’t go if it were raining. But that was the old me. The new-me (the hiking-heroine of my mind) laughed in the face of Mother Nature (more hubris) and set-off for new horizons.

After an ordinary border crossing and a few hours drive, I stopped at the ranger station and registered my party of one – green tent, blue backpack, returning 10 August. I shuffled through the other registrations to see how busy the trail would be. Just one other party was registered, reasonable given the soggy conditions.

Walnut (my car) and me, circa 1990.

After missing the turnoff a few times, I finally started uphill. A mile of fairly smooth gravel road gave way to 4×4 heaven, something my Pontiac Firefly was not prepared for. Potholes, big rocks, rugged washboard were the highlights of the drive. My car and I really had no business here, but we pressed on (still more hubris). Eventually, I found the trailhead. The rain was just a light mist at this point; I donned my rain gear and newly waterproofed boots, hoisted my pack and headed up the trail. The notice board at the trailhead said, “Creek crossings dangerous.” I’d heard a bit about this earlier at the ranger station, where they’d suggested I camp before crossing the creek, at a level clearing “impossible to miss.”

Not counting the unmarked paths of misdirection *

The Heliotrope Ridge Trail is very well defined, and there were many other people on the trail, judging from the cars parked on the road. It would be fairly difficult to get significantly lost, especially in the summer. But, getting lost was not my immediate concern. Very shortly after starting, I was finding stretches of the trail to be quite difficult. For the next two hours, I repeatedly had to stop, sit, catch my breath and calm down, each time consulting both map and watch and considering turning back. I’m not fit enough for this. I’m not going to make it to that next turn/hill/tree. It’s too steep. Each time I stood up, it was an internal struggle to go up instead of down. But then that new-me would kick in, and I’d resolutely tramp forward; each time I found a relatively flat section that was easier, I took it as a sign that I could do it.

Part way along, I was quickly passed by three relatively un-laden men. They were part of a climbing team, well beyond where I was going. They wished me a good hike and sped off up hill. 15 minutes later we met again, at the edge of a rushing creek, not deep but about 10 metres across. The speedy guys were crossing about five meters up from the trail, and indicated that that was the best way across so I followed. There were several large rocks and some fallen logs to get over, and climbing up with my massive pack was tortuous. I struggled to keep my balance on the wet rocks, and so watching my feet to make sure they were placed securely. I stepped up, stood up and – WHAM – hit the top of my head squarely on an overhead log. I started to fall over backwards, swayed by my enormous pack, but I caught a branch with one hand and managed to land feet-then-knees first in the creek.

You know how when you do something kind of silly, it’s made worse when there’s an audience? I was shaking my head to make sure I didn’t pass out when I heard, “are you okay?” from across the creek. The three climbers had paused to see that I made it across. “I’m fine!” I said, as sunnily as I could, and then put my faith in my boots, stood up, and forded the creek. Faith rewarded – aside from the tops of my socks, my feet remained dry if still a bit unsteady. The climbers wished me well and continued their dash to the top, while I tried to put thoughts of near-concussion aside and resume my sloth-like pace behind them.

I missed ten million miles of road I should have seen *

I wondered now where the clearing-before-the-creek was. I couldn’t have missed it – the area was supposed to be too big to miss, especially for someone like me who was fervently seeking it. I dug out my map and tried to figure out where I was; the map showed only one creek crossing the trail, and that was near the end. Buoyed by this light at the end of the creek/tunnel, I proceeded apace.

I was, however, nowhere near the end. After another hour, and another half-dozen checks of the map, I wondered whether I had in fact managed to get lost. I came to an area with a few small clearings, and despite it looking more like a rest area than a campsite, I decided to camp there for the night. I set-up my tent and tossed my pack inside; I decided to go up the trail with a much lighter load, to see if I could determine how far I was from where I should have been. The rain had taken a break and the sun was poking out in spots. Very shortly, I came to the real creek – it was about 30 metres across, not deep but fast moving, broken up by boulders and gravel bars. This area was quite open, and the meadows beyond were covered in wildflowers (my first mountain meadow). Beyond these, I could make out the edge of Coleman glacier, and feel the cool breeze from the ice fields.

Not my photo, but a reasonably close image of my memory of the meadow.

I lingered here for some time. This was the reason for all of the trudging of the long day – those few minutes, ankle-deep in a glacier-fed creek, surrounded by dense forest, just below a glacier and high above everything else. I looked and marvelled and breathed and sighed, “yes, this is the why.”

Rain soaked and voice choked like silent screaming in a dream *

Suddenly, Mother Nature remembered my earlier scorn of her strength, and so she suddenly closed the window on beauty and returned to her earlier-scheduled weather: torrential rain. It began with a thick misty rain that sent me scurrying back to the campsite. I dragged out my food, pots and stove, and started water boiling for tea. I thought about a hot meal, but the rain had increased and dryness was a greater priority, so I finished my tea, found some bagels and cheese, entered the enclave of the tent and sealed up for the night. It was around 6pm, a truly early bedtime for a summer hike, but I was looking forward to a cozy evening.

Once inside, I went to change into my warmer drier clothes. I pulled out my fleecy top, and quickly changed into that, laying out my drenched shirt and bra, hoping for some drying action overnight. I had had sweatpants on under my rain pants, and these were now completely living up to their name and soaked through. I reached into my pack for my dry leggings and found…a pair of shorts? I shivered. A frantic dump of the pack revealed nothing warmer than a change of socks and underwear. I shivered more. After a hopeless few minutes trying to remember where my fleecy pants were, I soon realized it didn’t matter – they were not here. And so another new solo experience – fear.

I was not soothed at all by the weather. It was raining hard now, and those gentle mountain breezes from earlier had become much harsher; I crawled into my sleeping bag, and with the first clap of thunder, started to cry in frustration and fear. What a dunce I was.

Not content to bow and bend *

But new-me soon kicked in again. I finished my tea while mentally calculating options – what could I use to keep warm, how long would it take to walk back to the car. With this latter thought, Mother Nature granted me a reprieve – a cessation of wind and rain – and this time I did not laugh in her face. I got while the getting was good. All gear – wet, dry and in between – went back in the pack. What dry clothes I had went on, and, with a flash of lightening to bid me farewell, I headed back down. The rains soon returned, soaking me through and filling my glasses with water; I ended up going without them, as blurriness was easier than blindness.

Once on the trail, I felt much better. I began having the fun I was seeking at the start, moving at a good pace, down being easier than up. I began to think of all that I’d accomplished in one day. I hiked on my own (almost) all the way up the trail, camped, ate, hiked a bit, got in the sleeping bag, dismantled it all, and hiked out – everything I’d intended over two days in a single afternoon.

The trip out was comparatively uneventful and a lot shorter. What took two hours to get to took just 45 minutes to get away from. I dumped everything in the car, changed into the dry clothes I’d left in the backseat, and headed for home. The drive was just as dicey as the drive in. I stopped for gas and beer (a reward for job well done), and that’s when I heard it, the price paid for my vehicular hubris: very loud noises from under the car. But the rain was again torrential, and I was too wet and tired to figure it out. So I headed home. Entire round trip: just over 12 hours.

The full fall-out from this episode took a few days to come to light. My legs broke out in a display of bruises as colourful as the wildflower meadow, and the lump on my head was tender for a long time. The car damage was a set of holes in the muffler, a memento of that terrible road; a search for a more rugged vehicle would be a future adventure.

Oh how I wish I were a trinity, so if I lost a part of me
I’d still have two of the same to live
But nobody gets a lifetime rehearsal… *

I feel a fair amount of pride and success at what I accomplished on this trip, albeit tinged with some regret. In hindsight, I was a bit hasty in leaving the campsite (“when danger reared its ugly head/she bravely turned her tail and fled” **). The rest of that weekend was gorgeous, sunny and clear; the hiking would have been outstanding, if only I’d toughed it out. I now knew that the more hardcore “full on” backpacking was not for me. I also knew that I’d learned enough and enjoyed it sufficiently that a next time is inevitable, whether solo or with others. Just after my head feels better.

* From “Love’s Recovery” (music and lyrics by Emily Saliers). On Indigo Girls by the Indigo Girls, 1989. This song, and many others by the Indigo Girls, were part of the soundtrack of my 25-year-old life, gracing many a mixed tape and forming an integral part of my sing-along repertoire of the day.

** From “Brave Sir Robin”, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

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