There are moments in life which are unforgettable because you witness a family member or friend achieve a milestone. There are other moments which are unforgettable because you yourself achieve a milestone. I’m not sure exactly how to describe the milestone, but yesterday I had an amazing, unforgettable moment.
Before I get on with it, let me warn you: most likely when you hear my story you are going to get worried and anxious for me, about me. Honestly, I don’t need or want your fear or anxiety, had plenty of my own already. Scared the bejeezus out of myself and the nine people I left behind on the trail.
For about 10 days, I had been looking forward to a 5-mile snowshoe trip to a waterfall and back. In my entire life, I had only been snowshoeing once a year ago, and was excited to try again. I grew up in an area where there were maybe two or three snows a year. Snow play was sledding and making snow men and snow angels. Thus, I am a beginner when it comes to snow sports. Yet, I love the forest and the forest covered in snow is stunning, the quiet, the trees clothed in lacy white, the chill in the air. Such a different experience in winter.
We gathered at the appointed time at the group meeting place, ten of us all eager and excited, carpooling 80 miles to a trail head just off the highway on the east side of Mount Hood. The temperature was 16 degrees and there were light snow flurries. Off we went into the forest, our hike leader breaking snow on the trail as we all tromped behind. I have no idea how much snow was already on the ground though we were creating channels 6 to 18 inches in depth with no ground in site.
I was happy in the forest. I was happy my new snow shoes were keeping me up. And I was happy that my friend had shared his hand warmer thingies because the cold was a real challenge for my hands.
The entire hike had an elevation gain of just under 1000 feet. There was a lot of up and down. I was working hard to learn as I went about digging in my toes on the up and digging in with heels on the down. About a third of the way, we started around a mountain on a narrow trail. I put my outside foot down. Maybe there was a hole, or shifting snow, or my foot was a little too far out, but I stumbled, fell, and… Well, because there was nothing to block me, I landed on my back and began a slide down the mountain side covered in many feet of snow.
I was told later that as I fell I screamed and yelled and cussed. At first all I could process was that I was moving, and moving fast and couldn’t stop. For at least a split second, I know I thought, Well, it’s too late for anything now, I’m not going to be able to get out of this.
But, then I started watching where I was headed. Oh! Here comes a tree! Should I use my feet on the tree to stop myself? No, I decided, might hurt my legs since I was moving so fast. Veered past the tree. O, dear! Here comes another tree and I swear I’m picking up speed. Veered again. Now I could see a sapling, maybe 2 or 3 inches in diameter, no top, just trunk. I somewhat aimed my feet to go on either side, reasoning that the size hopefully wouldn’t cause as much damage. I hoped it had roots and wasn’t loose. I was going fast, and may be off angle a bit, my left knee hooked the trunk and what seemed like the last possible second, I grabbed the wood with my hand and jerked to a sudden stop. Thank God!
I could hear my fellow travelers back on the trail, up, up, up from me, calling for me, disbelief everywhere. I don’t remember what I said but answered back. I was of two minds and a pounding heart. I had done what a moment before seemed impossible: I had stopped myself with my own determination and strength. But, I knew I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Because of the steep incline, I was hanging with no sure way of getting my feet under me to maybe climb up the hill. I also knew no one had ropes to throw me thus my own motion was the way out if I could figure out how. And I wasn’t sure how long my arms could hold out.
The good news: somehow no exposed skin, no snow where it shouldn’t be, and nothing seemed broken. Plus I still had my gloves and the hand warmer thingies. And hallelujah! Here comes my rescue squad!! The first person with his own face of determination, slow side steps down and then around me and digging in so I can let go of the tree and get my knee unhooked. The second person coming to assist and figure the best path from here.
In all of this, several thoughts went through my head. The first just as I started sliding: Wow! Too bad I never thought this through before! What does one do when you find yourself sliding down a mountainside? I now know the answer: listen to the voice of wisdom in your head, she won’t lead you astray. I am living proof of how well that works! This voice is the innate wisdom of your body and heart. Listen, trust, obey!
Another thought: In the car ride out, I had joked that for some reason it’s not a hike for me if my butt doesn’t hit the ground at some point. Me and my short legs sometimes find sit and slide quicker and easier. Apparently, there is a term for this: glissade. As I hung there, I quickly decided that it was pushing it to call what I had just done glissading!
Then I thought of my trainer Brad. Last Spring, when I had begun training to strengthen myself for summer mountain hiking, he had given me upper body strengthening exercises. With a kidding twinkle in his eye, he said he thought about what I might need if I ever found myself hanging from a cliff. Suspended from the tree, I was giving him a huge shout-out for his foresight. I don’t know how long I hung there, five, ten minutes, but I was thankful for every moment of pushup and knee to elbow.
Looking back, I can see I was terrified. The worst had happened and somehow, I was literally still hanging in there, betting against the odds.
My rescuers helped me get untangled and talked me through every step, shoring up my confidence. Exchanging my snow shoes for micro-spikes, the three of us prepared to climb back up. When that proved too difficult for me, we turned the other direction, going down and around, finding the lower part of the trail.
And I finished. I made it to the waterfall, a beautiful, frozen wonderland. Then back through the forest and more snow on a song and a prayer. Arriving back at the car just at sunset, running on fumes.
Here’s my takeaway: Yesterday, I did something spectacular for myself! Though, honestly there were moments where I was exhausted and ready to give up, I DIDN’T!? I fought. I kept telling myself to find my way, to focus on this moment, and not get ahead of myself. The only acceptable way back was on my own two feet, however tired and nervous those two feet might be. I am 57 years old. Ten years ago, I would never have imagined that I would have been able to do anything remotely like this. Cheryl, stand in this awesomeness and own it! I conquered the mountain of me!
Another takeaway: Don’t let fear overwhelm. Acknowledge feelings whatever they may be. Then live in the strength that saved my butt. My friend estimated I slid at least 100 feet on a 45-degree incline. As me and the rescue squad went down from where I stopped, it was clear that if I hadn’t stopped, I might very well have gone off a cliff. I didn’t. Wasn’t in my cards. Absolutely the most terrifying experience of my life. AND with the kindness of my rescue squad and the entire group, I live to tell this story.
As I said in the beginning, I don’t want your anxiety or your worry. This was a milestone day, an event both unforgettable and strengthening, worthy of celebration. I want your congratulations and any great jokes, quips, or puns which you are inspired to let flow.
I also want you to identify the same determination in yourself. It’s there. I know because yesterday, I found it in me.