It suddenly occurs to me that I might very well die in this place. The reality of quietly slipping off into an unwaking sleep and giving into hypothermia becomes very real. I've been on the trail for a little over an hour and I can tell the temperature has already begun to plummet. It was only sixteen degrees when I started and I have no way of knowing how low it will dip.
I had filled up my water bottle before I left home as I always do. The bottle isn't just a bottle but rather a water filtration system. Suspended within the water bottle is a filter device that, when empty, clangs into the side of the plastic with a devastating "phrrring" which has an equally devastating effect on my mental fortitude. When full of water, however, the filter gives off an ethereal and uniquely soothing sound with each step I take on the trail. I have come to appreciate this sound as only someone who appreciates truly one-of-a-kind things can...you know...crazy people. As I walk into the Laurel-Snow wilderness I no longer hear the familiar sound of my filter bumping as I hike. I know that the water has already frozen.
I cast these morbid thoughts aside like a fat ten year old banishes broccoli to the trash can. I push on. Always forward. The faster I hike the warmer I get and for now, this is the only thought that occupies me. I begin to really enjoy the scenery of the trail which follows the semi-frozen river on my left and the ice encrusted rock bluffs to my right. The right decision was made when I decided to come here despite the ominous weather that was forecast. Along the way I pass the entrance to the remains of the old Richland coal mine.
I feel as if I am somewhat cheating you by leaving most of the mining and development history of the area in absentia but you can read about it here if you are so inclined. As the riverbed falls lower and lower beneath me I realize that the trail is climbing higher and higher up the ridge. Higher means that I must be getting closer to the areas of the waterfalls and that means camp is not too much further up the trail.
It is here, not more than an eighth of a mile from my destination that the ice covered shit hits the snow covered fan. In my conversation with Dan on the drive in he relayed to me that the fifty foot steel bridge that crosses the creek had been severely damaged by a fallen tree and was not safe to pass over. When I finally make it to bridge...I find this.
I am Jack’s sulking disappointment...
My thoughts were as follows and in this order:
Cross the ice covered damaged bridge wearing full three-day pack.
Find a way to cross on the rocks and ice.
Wade the water.
Turn my ass around and find a Cracker Barrel.
Crossing the bridge at this point was not an option. Although the fifteen foot fall probably wouldn't kill me it would most certainly kill my camera and negate everything I had came here to do. Wading the water proved futile because I couldn't risk hypothermia this early in the excursion. Pancakes seemed the only rational choice here…. Sadly, those beautiful golden discs of glory would have to wait because I had in fact remembered to bring my ice-gear on this trip for just such a hopeless situation. I strap the carbide ice spikes to my boots and begin to comb the banks of the river for a fording.
Normally, creek and small river crossings in spring and summer or even autumn are not such a big deal. There are almost always rocks or trees that can be employed by the industrious soul to negotiate such water hazards. In this case, where you the glazed-eyed reader finds yourself joining me(I really am sorry I dragged you into this) its the ass crack of brutal winter and everything is slick. The rocks have a deceptively fragile layer of ice extending from them out into the river This “ice” is nothing more than a way to freeze/drown yourself in an unassuming three feet of water. The odd thing about this scenario is that you find yourself forgetting that beneath the seemingly solid ice is a river. You simply can't decipher where to put your feet. I go up stream and then down stream testing out the ice shelves and looking for some way to get across this miserable piece of fluid damnation.
About three hundred yards downstream I find a spot where I could possibly cross without getting soaked. Using my trusty tripod as a walking aid, I carefully and I do mean CAREFULLY dig my spikes into the ice and begin my hesitant crossing. By some incredible feat of Mooseness I make it through without spilling into the black and frozen water.
It’s around 6:30 P.M. or so when I reach the now snow covered clearing of my campsite.
After a half hours work in the snow....
This was the approximate time of sunset for the day and I’m relieved to still have light remaining to get camp pitched and try and find some dry firewood. An hour later the hammock is slung, the tarp is up and the camera gear is tucked in out of the snow. The fire is a lost cause and I am starting to feel the darkness and the cold close in around FOB Moose at the Henderson Creek site. I chose this particular campsite because it is right in the middle of the entire Laurel-Snow SNA. Using a centrally located jump off will allow me to leave most of my gear in camp and strike out on the trail with an ultralight kit consisting of essentially nothing but photo making tools, water, and twelve pounds of bacon.
After I give up on the fire in a fit of tears I resign myself to my frigid fate and break out my stove. It feels like hours have passed since I made it to camp. I hunker down beneath my hammock to eat and to get out of the wind and snow which has now begun to mix with sleet and rusty razor blades. Supper tonight will be a $1 pack of broccoli and cheese rice boiled with a few pieces of my homemade jerky and sandwiched between a few cheap flour tortillas. Humble sounding I know but those welcomed meals in the backcountry are some of the best you will ever taste.
While I’m inhaling my food I begin to experience something new. My chow is actually freezing faster than I can eat it. I find this briefly laughable as the snow begins to cover the toes of my boots and I realize I can’t really feel my butt anymore. I rummage through my hammock and find one of the fleece blankets I have brought and fold it into a half-ass(get it?) cushion so that my pants don't freeze to the ground tarp. I down the last of my rice and beef and with a proud and probably audible Lebowski-style “Fuck it, dude” I decide the only option I have is to cocoon myself in the hammock and sleep out the ice storm which I now find myself enduring. This brings me to a point of abject misery and gnashing of teeth that is unconsidered by the uninitiated but well known to thoroughbred hikers. It’s time to change my pants. Well, not change per say but layer on another pair to combat the cold of the encroaching night. You can thank me later for not going into more detail.
I think I mentioned earlier that another objective of this trip was to educate myself on cold weather hammock camping. Think of a bridge in winter. It doesn't have to be below freezing for ice to form on top of the bridge because there isn't any ground to insulate the bottom. Same. Damn. Principle. I learned this lesson the hard way after getting chilled while sleeping in the hammock during a four day backcountry hike in Elkmont without a sleeping bag. So I layered my hammock from the bottom up with: my issue wool blanket, then my 20 degree sleeping bag, fleece blanket stuffed at the foot, fleece blanket stuffed at the head...I then take my rightful place in the burrito and zip up the bag. After that, I wrap the wool blanket over the top and stretch the fleece around my head and shoulders. I tug my headlamp down around my neck and switch it off. Before I pull my trusty shemagh over my face I check my watch being certain that it’s ten or even eleven o’clock. To my surprise it is a little past 7:30 P.M. I have made camp, ate, and tucked myself inside my shell in a little over an hour.
I will stay here, suspended mid-air with the blowing ice and snow and sleep like a drunk baby for the next twelve hours. Tomorrow I will set out to photograph Laurel Falls. I can hear the sleet pecking away at the outside of my tarp and the wind sets the hammock rocking at a gentle sway. I don’t want to be anywhere else.