Our First Camping Trip: The Story of How I Almost Died
A brief detour to a little town with one gas station with no customer bathroom (I may or may not have peed out back) saved us from running out of gas before we got to the trailhead of Silver Star Mountain. Getting out of the car, we grabbed our day pack and overnight pack and started up the trail that quickly changes from dense bush to rugged, ridgeback scenery. Once we cleared the shrouded trail, we looked around in wonder at the number of volcanic mountains on the horizon. St. Helens is so close that you feel like you’re nearly on top of it and Mount Rainier, Adams, Hood, and Jefferson also make a strong showing.
Having done this trail before, I was confident that we could make it around the left side of the loop that traverses precarious ledges and passes through an arch formed by boulders. This route means you can see all of the mountains every step of the journey and we’re suckers for mountains.
The first sign of danger came when we passed a trio of hikers that said they’d attempted to go this way but were backtracking because there was no way through. We politely thanked them for their advice but wanted to check it out for ourselves since someone had warned me of the same thing on my previous trip and it had turned out to be unfounded advice.
When we started seeing snow on the trail, we weren’t immediately turned off, after all, we’ve been snow hiking all winter long. The cliff got more and more sheer as we scrambled across rubble and icy paths searching for the way up to the main trail. From above we heard a group of hikers calling down to us that they didn’t see any way up and that we should turn back. We were so far gone at this point that we decided to go just a bit further to a place that looked promising for scaling.
A 55 degree incline covered in snow lay before us. We crossed by kicking a hole in the snow with our front foot, then our back foot, and stepping one over the other into our makeshift holes. Our hands were freezing as we leaned forward on them to hug the mountain as we carefully crossed.
At last, we admitted defeat, confessing that the others had been right and there really was no way up in these snowy conditions. Turning around, we began to climb back the way we came. Two steps in, I hit an impasse, “Llew, if I move from this spot, I’ll fall down the mountain, only my hip is grounded.” He inched his way back over to me and lent me his hand so I could regain my footing. I asked him to stay closer to me since I was feeling pretty insecure about the snow’s ability to hold me.
Using his footholds, we clambered sideways across the nearly vertical slope. I took one more step, eyeballing a scraggly tree and Llew’s proximity as I felt the weakness of the snow and mud beneath my foot. A millisecond later, I was plummeting feet first down a 70-degree slope. Llew’s hand found mine and I groped at the tree, but the speed of my fall was so fast that he couldn’t stop my momentum and the tree ripped through my fingers, leaving my knuckles bloody.
I felt every jagged rock and freezing patch of snow as I half slid, half fell for 30 feet (10 m). Llew could do nothing but watch in horror as I plummeted rapidly down the side of the mountain, slipping out of his view as I fell abruptly into a boulder-filled crevice. The boulders broke my fall in a wave of pain and then relief as I realized I wasn’t going to continue infinitely down the mountain until I fell off to my death.
Knowing he must be panicking above—not knowing in what shape he’d find my body or corpse—I called up to him and let him know I was okay. Nym had seen me fall and her mountain-goat climbing abilities allowed her to reach me first. Llew wasn’t far behind and his embrace helped to calm my nerves a bit. With a peevish, “Shortcut? At least I don’t have to climb down that whole thing now,” we both breathed a sigh of relief that things had not gone as badly as they certainly could have. If I’d fallen a foot more to the right, there wouldn’t have been a crevice to stop my fall.
Once I caught my breath and stopped shaking all over, we wiped the mud from my light wounds and discovered that one of our water bottles had leaked on all of our spare clothes. We were on a roll. Determined to summit and set up our campsite before dark, we trudged along. My heightened sense of danger as we continued our sideways shuffle across the snowy path, rendered me nearly incapable of going on. Llew made me deep footholds catered to my pace length and punched holes in the snow for my hands to grip with a bloody, white-knuckle grasp.
At last, we arrived back on stable ground and the sense of liberation from the weight of my fears was intensely felt. An hour later, we summited a windy peak in wet clothes and with frozen fingers—but alive.
After our camp was set up, we made a piping hot bowl of soup in our Jetboil and used it to warm our fingers and insides as we sipped it down. Snug in our sleeping bags, we watched the sunset with a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation at how lucky we were to be on top of the mountain freezing instead of seriously injured or dead.
Agreeing to not be such complete idiots on our future camping trips, we fell asleep, then promptly woke up again when we realized that we were in a dew-cloud and our decision to not put on the full rain cover had been one last rookie move. Correcting the issue, we fell asleep, tossing and turning all night and snuggling with Nym inside of the sleeping bag for added warmth and love.
In life, there are only adventures and misadventures and the latter make the better story. Despite our first camping trip together being a rough one, we had a fantastic time and learned more about backpacking and each other from our accident than we would have on a million perfect trips. To end on a complete clique, live and learn.