Thursday, January 16, 2014
"Trapped under Ice" Metallica
The following is excerpted from an as yet untitled book that I wrote about waterfalls. It is the third of many parts about this, but I place them here since I will be going back there when the weather breaks for the snowier, colder, and icier. The changes to the facts in this story haven't been corrected since their previous truth reflect why they changed.
In the interim periods during the accumulations of endless piles of papers that would need to be graded throughout spring, summer, and autumn of 2003 and beyond, I looked through the forest with neck craning up and twisting around to see what I could see of this completely new universe that ST had introduced me to on that summer day of 2002. With every passing instant, I was more enthralled with the world that showed itself as I made each twist and turn that the creek carved out until I came upon the first fall, Murray Reynolds.
Sure, Murray Reynolds was only sixteen feet tall, but the hammer thrust of the rock jutting upward from between the waters is quite impressive as it forces the roaring white-capped waters to the left and right. To think of all of the time that it took to make something like this possible, I realize that "geologic time includes now," as Edward Abbey stated and Aron Ralston repeated in both his book Between a Rock and a Hard Place and 127 Hours, the movie of his life. However, in real life, erosion is consistent, despite being microscopically gradual. Even at the slowed down rate of one foot every ten years, which is just twelve simple inches long, Niagara Falls still only cuts into the cliffs of America and Canada at a rate that is nothing that can be truly witnessed without trick photography or a microscope. While it’s a decreased amount of change for this tortured landscape, which is located in upstate western New York, it’s not much in the grand scheme of things. Any change that happens at all is at the mercy of the water that is being sent over that cliff by the diversion of industry. However, for all that man does and doesn’t do, the changes don’t register with the human eye from day to day, even if it the water that is causing them was running at ten times that rate. Sure, to come back to spot the differences in this world a century later means that the river is now ten feet upstream from where it once was, but as to when the waterfalls will no longer be divided by Goat Island and the other fourteen smaller islands that stand above it, several lifetimes will first have to pass.
The same can be said for any noticeable changes to Murray Reynolds.
Nevertheless, there are changes that register at Ricketts Glen. After the floods of 2006 and 2011, bridges and paths were washed out. To that end, a nice wooden bridge was built up to cut back over the creek in the first mile of the trail that ascends the mountain from the trailhead on Route 118. Piles of rocks and fallen trees have been added along curves in the stream to strengthen sections that are prone to flooding damage. Some trees are just visible as their fallen trunks. Other trees feature the earth around their base that is pulled up in a small and concise ball of roots that makes the tree appear to have been ripped out of its place in the forest instantaneously. In other spots, boulders crash down from the sides of the mountain. In fact, avalanche damage is fairly common in sections such as the carved out gorge that sits between the Shawnee and Huron waterfalls. The weather definitely tends to do a number on the area that is carved into here.
That said, this section looks exceptionally beautiful with thirty-foot icicles hanging off of its sides. This is something that I would love to walk back into again, but the man who entered into it in February of 2004 is not the man who hikes into waterfalls in 2013, even if he has been wrestling with his inner sense of safety to find a way back.
That said, this man is no longer equipped to do that much of Ricketts Glen in the winter, but to understand how he ever came to be equipped and desirous of entering Ricketts Glen in the winter, we must first go back in time to when he first made the winter treks into Ricketts Glen, which is a time before ST ever took him to Ricketts Glen for the first time.
On this occasion, I was with my friend P, who was mentioned as having been a poor substitute for ST. We had been hanging out in late 2000 and early 2001 in the semester break between our final semesters of college, and I agreed to drive him back to college at the California University of Pennsylvania. Along the way, we stopped off at Ohiopyle State Park in order to see Cucumber Falls. P knew of this destination from having seen it with people that he was friends with at CALU, and as he ushered me back through the snowy roads to the point that the trail began, a sense of inspiration overwhelmed us. We rushed into the woods from the trailhead at the parking lot, walking through the icy snows of western Pennsylvania, and we ventured into a world of snow and ice. The trail wasn’t long at all, so momentarily, we arrived at the carved out area, which was a horseshoe-shaped cliff that featured a 30-foot drop from the cliff above.
When you see the actual falls themselves in the pictures that I took, they are camouflaged behind a thick shell of ice on the sides. When you move close enough to the front of them, you still see movement of water, but it’s disguised behind icicles that are taller than the adventurer that is gazing upon them. Yes, even moving waterfalls will eventually freeze, but it takes time and doing. At the base of the falls is a pyramid of ice that has built up from the accumulating water freezing in the cold western Pennsylvania nights. As the woods are more elevated and isolated, the once moving streams of water are now solid enough to walk across without any worry, especially if you’re too dumb to worry, which it’s clear that both P and I were since we just rushed right toward it.
The back wall behind the waterfall had dagger-like icicles on it. The sides of the canyon area also had tiny knife-life icicles that formed beautiful shapes in their hidden recesses. In short, this was a wintery paradise that was unrivaled by anything that I had ever seen before. Sure, the mountains of Schuylkill County always seemed to have icicles on them while we drove through there to go to my nana and my aunt’s house in the winters of childhood, but this was pristine and private and spectacularly beautiful despite the footprints that we walked in.
A dozen years later, I have thirteen pictures to show for my time there, and for this, I wish I would have had more digital space to go and shoot tons of pictures of everything, but alas, I didn’t. Instead, I would have to make do with what I have.
Perhaps, someday, I may return to the iced over world, but for now…
At the time, P and I walked in with our sneakers, casual winter jackets, and jeans. We had no winter hat or gloves. In the pictures, you can see my hands were wedged in my pockets and my head only was covered by a baseball hat. I don’t remember it being cold. In fact, the scenery overwhelmed any other effect of the element that might be present. To our fates, we freely and gladly went.
Looking back, it seemed so appropriate to just do it like this. However, the casual nonchalance of what we did then would come back to bite me in a bigger way when I decided that I would go to Ricketts Glen for the winter in pretty much the same attire for a casual hike down and around the snowy mountain.
In February of 2004, I started to compare my pictures from Ohiopyle to those of Ricketts Glen, Here, I figured that if Ohiopyle looked like it did in the winter, then Ricketts Glen had to be way more spectacular and infinitely grander. Sure, I had never seen Ohiopyle in summer, and I wouldn’t make it there until 2010, but I knew this to be a fact.
Quite frankly, I was that good.
In that Mid-August of 2010 visit, many years later, my wife and I stopped there on our way out to see her family in Ohio. The waterfall, which had once been so majestic in winter, was now so silent and dull on a dry summer day. The crest that seemed to be so wide when it came to viewing the volume of its icy creation was now so narrow and unimpressive in comparison. The raging torrent that I imagined would be there only managed to trickle over the ledge and into the stream that waited below. Sure, the main falls on the Youghiogheny River were moving and they were definitely pretty with their steep, rocky drop from this major river, but even they wouldn’t rank nearly as picturesquely as the Great Falls of the Potomac would be the following year when my wife and I witnessed how these major falls were punctuated by menacing boulders and interrupting rocky points that jutted out from below the cliffs where we gazed down upon the river waters as they collapsed over drop after drop to arrive at a quieter river, which would wind its way into Washington D.C and the Chesapeake Bay.
In short, Ohiopyle on a dry and hot summer day was just one of hundreds of waterfalls that we would see in our relationship. However, for the influence that the park in winter would have, I was now directed toward a more challenging pursuit.
But Ricketts Glen, Ricketts Glen had 22 waterfalls of size, both in height and width, and I was fully intent to go see all of them in their winter décor, so I got my hiking gear together and planned out my journey into the Waterfall Kingdom.
To do my trek, I dressed in layers of sweatshirts that I could remove if my body became a raging inferno from the heart of exertion and its interconnected sweat that I would feel while trying to get up and down the mountain. In this, I knew it was easier to add than subtract, at least while I was out in the wilderness.
For my feet, I wore Gore Tex sneakers instead of boots. In hindsight and with memories of the snow that slipped into them, that probably wasn’t the smartest idea in the world, and it was a sign that I probably should have gotten some more practical advice than what I was giving myself for the trip.
Finally, I grabbed my Camelbak backpack and made sure that the three liter water bag was completely full of ice cold water. Interestingly enough, this is the only way I can drink it, and keeping it cold wasn’t ever a problem on the winter trail. In fact, the only problem was keeping the tube that traveled from the pack to my mouth from freezing up. This was a problem if I went too long without being sucking the water through it.
An object in motion remains in motion. An object at rest remains at rest. A body that is not properly hydrated goes clunk.
Last but not least, I grabbed a ton of granola bars for nourishment, and I shoved them into one of the front pockets of the backpack so that I could get at them fairly easily. While it’s probably too much information to say it, the composition of them actually sits easier on my stomach than any other food, especially greasy food, and it ensures that I don’t have to bare my ass in the woods at the behest of nature’s call.
This is not a pleasant situation to deal with on a winter’s day.
Eating the wrong type of foods while hiking can be a problem, and while it gets "easier" after the first time, "dropping trou" is never a fun part of hiking in the woods. I can’t imagine how long distance hikers do it, and I feel sorry for women who have to get uncomfortable every time that nature calls, no matter what way it is in. To me, being equipped as I am in the male way, I don’t have to worry about the majority of bathroom visits, and I can also eliminate the problems that I would have the other way by not eating greasy foods like eggs, bacon, or Heaven forbid, McDonald’s fast food, before I go hiking.
When I was done with the hiking gear, I focused on my cameras. Every time that I went out on the road less traveled, be it in nature or in cities that I didn’t frequently travel to, I also carried my green camera bag with my 35mm interchangeable lens camera loaded with color film and my 35mm fixed lens camera with black and white film. To be honest, my cameras are probably the most thought-out and respected supplies for this or any trip that I have ever taken. In making sure that they were ready to go and that I had enough film for any possible subject that I wanted to preserve for all of eternity, they were definitely given priority over spending all of my time contemplating something less "meaningful" like what would keep my body warm when it came to my cameras’ prominence in the level of consideration of purpose I would give them for my trip since their job was to immortalize the fact that I went on this trip, and to be honest, that was everything.
In this way, I thought about what would happen if the camera failed? Would it be like the time my friends and I saw the band Fugazi at the Norwich Waterfront in 1992, and after the show, we met them, but my friend camera failed and ABSOLUTELY NONE of the pictures that we took with them turned out? Surely, in the age of digital, we would have known what was on the camera, but somehow, that 35mm film camera, which didn’t even belong to me, failed me in the moment that would have immortalized the single greatest concert experience of my 42 years of life. I remember my friend thinking that it did. I’m not sure how he knew. Perhaps, he had failed to wind the film in the camera properly or maybe he knew that the camera was a piece of shit. Who’s to say?
All I knew is that I have no proof that the event ever occurred.
Could this type of situation happen again? Could my cameras that I have now fail as well? And just like with that potential problem that was realized in that horrible moment, what would happen if I accidentally exposed the film like I did when I tried to reload my camera in Idaho to shoot pictures of that bald eagle that was just sitting on that tree, not too far removed from the highway? The camera had made the rewinding noise, but here’s the thing:
It didn’t rewind and the film looked back at me instead as if to say, "Nyah nyah nyah nyah! I got you!"
In an instant, I lost all of that second cross country trip’s Grand Tetons pictures, and it would be several years before I could go back out there to revisit the places that I once saw and try to recapture the scenery in that same way. That was a heart-breaking loss that could never truly be replaced, even if I eventually took a fair bit of photos of this National Park.
In all of this I knew that if I couldn’t show the images that I saw while hiking the trail, some people wouldn’t believe that the things that I saw really existed. Some people aren’t exactly the most trusting of the stories that other people tell. The only truth for humanity is what exists in ways that can be definitely proven to a world of skeptics and devil’s advocates. For this reason more than any other, I made sure that my camera was ready to go, well-protected, and filled with enough supplies to capture all of the images that needed to be extracted from the scene.
And at the same time, I always made sure that when I clicked open the back of the camera, I saw that that film had rewound. No point taking chances that don’t need to be taken.
To show how unprepared I was with regard to all of the other things that I needed for the winter hike, I didn’t even own ski / snow pants, so I substituted lined Adidas running pants, albeit insulated ones, which I would use with a pair of thermal underwear that I was wearing to keep myself warm through my journeys into the frozen glen.
My green Columbia jacket that I was wearing was the same jacket I had worn everywhere else, but that said, it did have a serious liner and it was very warm – despite the fact that I didn’t want it to rip since I needed to wear it everywhere that I went (in fact, I wore it on my trips to Ohiopyle, San Francisco, and many other places until it died for good in 2010).
For my feet, the only thing protecting my toes from the dark blue nastiness of frostbite was heavy socks and a pair of regular socks underneath them. This was about all the more I could shove on my feet and still have my feet be able to fit into my shoes. In addition, if it were any tighter, it wouldn’t feel comfortable to walk in them.
On my head, I had a heavy hat, as I always do since I know that it’s more important to be warm than fashionable. Young guys and gals who think that the red, frozen lifelessness of their ears is a suitable price to pay for being fashionable seem vapid to me. Give me comfort any day of the week!
Finally, on my hands, I did have warm gloves since I’m all about repelling water and cold when I’m in a freezing cold place. I knew that I would eventually be warmed up by the hike, but I couldn’t not be comfortable while waiting for this inner furnace to warm up.
With these last few additions, I won’t say that I was completely lackadaisical in my preparations because I am a wuss when it comes to feeling the cold in such a way that it is essential to avoid it as much as is humanly possible. I will also say that I did have a complete set of replacement clothes stuffed in my backpack in case anything got wet on me. Yes, I did know to do that. Nevertheless, I’m not sure if I was ready to get down to my birthday suit if the worst possible scenario happened. I’m sure I could have gotten dressed again quickly, but let’s just say that no man wants to contemplate the winter wind on his nipples or scrotum.
And so for all that I might have prepared for, there was more that I wasn’t ready for. Thus, I won’t say that I was going to be giving a lecture to Boy Scouts about how to "be prepared" any time soon. In fact, I probably needed some Boy Scouts to give me a good talking to about their core belief before I set out in search of the Holy Grail of waterfall images.
All the same, it was time to do, so with all of my things together, I was now ready to go. At least I was as ready to go as I was going to be.
After a nearly two and a half hour ride to the park, I drove into the top of the state park and moved through the snowy roads to a place where I could park and walk into the Falls Trail. Normally, these parking lots were for boaters on Lake Jean or people looking to go down into the falls area and then back up after seeing a select few waterfalls. This is kind of opposite to the way that most people doing the entire trail think when hiking since the average person plans on being too tired to want to walk uphill at the end of the 7.2 mile journey. For me, traveling from the bottom is how I normally do the Ricketts Glen thing, but on this particular occasion, I thought that I could access the falls quicker with a one mile hike instead of a nearly one and a half mile jaunt through the flatlands to get to ascend to the first falls. In addition, going this way would cut a huge chunk of the hike off. The balloon at the top of this hike was a little over four miles long if you included the three waterfalls that weren’t a part of the circle and the distance across the Highland Trail, which connected the two ends of the V into an enclosed shape.
Thus, what going this way really meant was a lot less time and exertion through the snow to get to the good stuff. The maxim is really true: "Why work harder when you can work smarter?"
The drive into Ricketts Glen’s mountaintop area is a short set of roads that lead through maintenance buildings and onto the camping areas and cabins as they move past Lake Jean, a 245-acre lake that forms the main part of the non-waterfall park. This isn’t the only lake in town, but it is the biggest. In addition to its fishing options, there are docks for motorboats, and summertime options to go paddle boating, row boating, kayaking, and canoeing as well as swimming.
In the winter, the lakes of the top section of Ricketts Glen change as it’s all ice fishing, all of the time, at least if there are four inches of ice between you and the lake. In addition to sitting and waiting for pan fish and trout to bite, there’s snowmobiling through the forests, which if memories of childhood and my parents taking my sister and I to my dad’s Tioga County hunting camp serve me correctly, was a whole lot of fun.
Sitting here now, I think about a trip that my sister and I took with my parents when I was about twelve and she would have been about eight. My parents had two snowmobiles, and I rode on the back of one that my mom drove while my sister rode on the back of my dad’s snowmobile. While driving back the then snow-covered dirt road to his cabin, the only way to get into the cabin, my dad’s snowmobile got loose and started to veer toward the side of the road, eventually slipping from the main surface of the trail.
With the mind of a NASCAR driver trained to react to an out of control car that was about to hit the wall, he quickly threw my sister off before he went over the edge with the snowmobile to make sure it didn’t hit a tree and explode like a scene from some action movie from my childhood. As I think about this now, I remember how my dad drove back up the embankment that his snowmobile slid down, and like Billy Idol might sing, with a "Rebel Yell" and a fist pump, he caught air while he still managed to put the machine back on its proper path! I don’t remember my mom being impressed with the air as much as he was, but when it was all said and done and he was safe and sound, it became a story for the ages.
Sometimes, a man has to do what he knows is right and will get the job done regardless of what those people who think everything is safe and sanitized feel is "ideal."
If I could, I would love to ride a snowmobile today, but that said, I’d be more about driving the pipelines of places like those in Potter and Tioga County than riding above frozen water. Some people might see images of snowmobiles heading out to ice fishing sites, but I wouldn’t drive a snowmobile on the ice – even if I lived in Alaska, Montana, Minnesota, or North Dakota. I’m not faulting those who do. It’s their way of life and their choice for their own lives, but it’s outside my limits of what I would feel safe doing. Thinking about ascending from a trapped vehicle isn’t a situation that I feel like I could have the presence of mind to rescue myself from. If you can, that’s your business. I know my dad has spoken about what he would do to arrest his descent if he ever got trapped under cracking ice, but I don’t see that survival gene inside myself in any way other than kicking and floundering before my wet clothes pull me down to the bottom. To that end, I see myself as the blue-faced subject floating lifelessly in a Metallica video from a time when they were still really cutting edge (that would be "Trapped under Ice" from Ride the Lightning if you’re keeping score). In our Walter Mitty dreams, we can be truly connected to everything we can do because just like in "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," we can slow down reality to create our reality. Mother Nature doesn’t allow for that; she’s a hostile bitch when you screw the pooch.
And of all of the places that I want to pull myself out of, a deep frozen lake, literally, isn’t the one that I want to be attempting to outduel.
I have come to see that getting creative in the lower states makes a death wish an all too possible reality (even if the good folks at Nodak Outdoors say that you can drive snowmobiles and ATVs on six inches of frozen water). Apparently, this jives with the scientific physics and chemistry principles of the bonding of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms at extremely cold temperatures for a long period of time. Nodak Outdoors also say that at ten to sixteen inches of ice, a small car or pickup truck is good to go on the ice, but they follow this up by sharing the Department of Natural Resource’s statement that "it is best to avoid driving on the ice whenever possible" – even if they feel that with sixteen plus inches of ice, medium pickup trucks are good to go across the frozen mountain lakes.
I know some people will feel that they can’t avoid this so they’ll go straight for the heart of the lake and try it, but frankly, I bought life insurance as a just in case thing – not because I want my wife to cash in my policy.
In addition to Lake Jean and its attractions, there are other lakes in the area, too. Some don’t have names, but they do have beavers, which makes them worth driving to and taking a gander at. Others are officially-named and go by the monikers of Mountain Spring, Beech, Ganoga, and the dried up Lakes Rose and Lee. These lakes pockmark the thinned out and shortened trees that sit atop a 2,250-2,400 foot high stretch of mountains that quickly transitions from Columbia County to Sullivan County to Luzerne County.
On that winter day that I ventured into these parts in early 2004, I drove past all of those things, and I went all the way back to the Lake Leigh parking area. The area by the parking lot was slightly plowed of the several inches of winter snows, but the roads were still packed down with snow because of the abundance of participants in the bustling ice fishing and snowmobile seasons at Ricketts Glen. If people like my dad are any indication, winter life doesn’t begin until the deep freeze sets in and they can go out and sit on that stool on the ice while waiting for the monster fish that is inevitably chomping at the bits to bite whatever real deal worm or plastic fishing lure that he chooses to feed them.
Lately, ice fishing hasn’t been that good to him. As a result, he’s had to travel longer distances to find places to pursue his winter joys. In this, if the cold line is further north, he and his friends will travel many hours to get to where they can participate in their fun. To me, this just shows that if people truly love something, they will find time, a way, and money to make it happen.
On this day, it looked like there were many satisfied outdoorsmen who had done just that.
That said, these two groups of winter sports aficionados weren’t the only people who had descended on the park for its winter uses since there were a modicum of ice climbers, snowshoe enthusiasts, and insane photographers who were too star-struck to know that they had a death wish, and as a result of it, they were now willing to go into the park at this time of year. That said, normally, these adventurers weren’t going in from the top, as the minimum amount of footprints in the snow would attest.
As I turned off Dream in Sound, the Elf Power CD I was listening to, I felt the brisk air on my skin as I gathered my stuff together and headed off in search of the photographic adventure I knew was awaiting me. Moving quicker through the snow to the start of the trail, I feverishly anticipated the sights that I would see down the rapidly descending path that soon became the trail. Soon after reaching the end of that path, I came to a sign that read "This trail has some steep and very difficult sections. Please be sure that you are properly prepared by being in good physical condition and by wearing sturdy hiking footwear. Muddy and slippery conditions can be expected during and after rains. Extensive icy areas frequently occur from early fall to late spring. You are responsible for your safety; please be careful and prudent…" This trailed into an iced over final line of warnings that was too crusted over with ice to read.
Here, I got the gist of what it was trying to say. I didn’t need to break the ice to reveal anything particularly extreme and gnarly (like "or you may turn into a popsicle that will remain frozen until Easter")
Nevertheless, it’s not that I needed a brief finale to the announcement anyway. While my five foot eight, 230-pound tubby self was able to get up and down the mountain in good weather, I wasn’t really in any semblance of physical shape to do an extended winter hike since my normal work week wasn’t any more taxing than the sedentary pursuit of teaching and related activities. Furthermore, I obviously didn’t have the right footwear, let alone the equipment that would have been recommended if I went online to see the Internet’s warning from the official park website that read:
"The Falls Trail is closed due to ice and hazardous conditions on the trail. At this time, the trail is closed to all except, registered ice climbers and experienced hikers with the proper gear. Minimal equipment should include ice crampons, ice axes, and rope. The trail is expected to be closed until sometime in the spring, usually mid-April."
All the same, I knew in the same way that they knew that they were right; in short, I was responsible for my own safety by avoiding anything that I knew could kill me outright. But alas, "I was here! I had spent the gas money! I was a man! I was living the life of adventure! The thought of quitting be damned! I’m gonna knock off this trail and show the world what I can do!
"OOH RAH, GOD DAMN IT!" And with that I walked down the mountain to the mysterious and beautiful destinations that awaited to be seen or to be given their opportunity to bitch slap my lilywhite ass back to Reading, Pennsylvania in a body bag. Either way…
However, in knowing that the good things were to come, I also had to realize that what I didn’t know could fill a book (even if I wasn’t acknowledging it). To this, what I didn’t know was that if I was to end up frozen inside of an ice cube floating down Kitchen Creek to Adams Falls, the final fall on the other side of Route 118, I would bob and float and drop nicely down through the carved out straight drop to float casually off the park’s property for someone else to find me somewhere further south. If this consequence happened, and my lifeless body got thrown down the many drops and steps between the top of the mountain and the bottom of the valley, I needed to know that it would be my own dumb fault. In addition, if I found myself wedged into an ice covered log somewhere up the stream at say the Ozone or RB Ricketts Falls, then I would be deep frozen in pretty blues and grays until spring because rescue wasn’t always possible, and even if it was, it wasn’t a guarantee, let alone worth anyone’s time or effort to risk their own life and limb to save me from being some bear’s lunch when I was already shuffled off of this mortal coil in my frozen cocoon.
If I didn’t know this then, I would learn this tale of getting lucky as hell four seasons later when I read about a young 18-year old girl from Bloomsburg who fell and injured herself back near the Delaware waterfall in early 2008. Whether the rescuers that assembled to rescue her from certain death pulled her out by coming in from the bottom, which seemed possible since it meant that they would have to go down seven waterfalls, or if they hoisted her up five other waterfalls (not including the Delaware in either case), then they had some serious walking to do. Even coming in from the west on the Old Bulldozer Road Trail or Ganoga View Trail would probably mean some serious bushwhacking to get to a place where they could find her on the icy twists and turns that makeup that section of Ricketts Glen.
In the end, the whole ordeal of pulling ol’ anonymous girl out of the glen took almost eight hours to complete and caused injuries to two of the rescuers who must have been wondering why they gave up their day and risked their own lives to save some unprepared teeny bopper from the fate that she had assigned herself to when she didn’t listen to the warnings that all trail entrances clearly stated.
Oh, don’t get me wrong; I say this with full respect and admiration of the talent and drive that these and other backcountry rescuers have in getting in there to pull someone back from the brink of oblivion. There is a pride in being able to risk all to do that for someone who can’t help him or herself. Nevertheless, I’m sure that while they’re carrying someone out, they’re giving a stern lecture that doesn’t mince words and tread lightly on people’s feelings with the consequence of expressions like "bad, stupid, asinine, idiotic, ridiculous," and "what the **** were you thinking?"
If you asked these people, they would be truthful and humble to their cause by stating the truths matter of factly. Were one of these rescuers here today, he or she might tell me that there is a heroic instinct inside of some people that people like myself wish that they could exhibit should the need ever arise. Was I to be sitting here with said person, I would look back and say, "You’re right. You have skills and traits that I wish I had. I completely admire and respect what you do." And I wouldn’t be lying because I’m glad we have people like that. They are the soldiers of our State and National Parks who quietly work for less pay than they deserve or they simply volunteer their time to make a difference in the world.
And quite humbly, I have to say that I’m glad that they do – both for people like said girl and for people like myself who have been lucky enough to dodge a bullet up (at least for the time being).
Like Jim Collins being forced to confront the words of Admiral Jim Stockdale in the book Good to Great, we will always wonder how we would perform should we be forced to confront the brutal truth of what we are stuck in while telling ourselves confidently that we will still persevere while people like Stockdale and these rescuers who are trained and experienced enough to have overcome adversity along the way will clearly know what separates them from Joe Six Pack who read a book about these things by say a Laurence Gonzalez. Thus, for these experienced people, their skills are now able to be worn like a superhero’s cape to let the world know that if it calls out / shines the image of a bat up against the skies of Gotham, someone will be there to kick ass and name names while doing whatever it takes to make it happen.
Nevertheless, for the pats on the back, the handshakes of thanks, and the other feelings of good will that they exchanged at the site of the accident on that January day five years ago, I’m sure they instilled in this woman an equal sense of, humbleness and apologetic behavior for the situation that she was LUCKILY pulled out of.
The first time that I went to Ricketts Glen in the winter, I still hadn’t experienced Edward Abbey’s mantra about how "A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches- that is the right and privilege of any free American." When I read those words in Desert Solitaire, they would influence me to want to experience the Colorado Plateau in much the same way that Abbey did, but alas, that is a story chronicled at length later. Nevertheless, I knew and I know as all hikers and outdoorsy and adventurous people know that there are limits to what they will do when it’s their life on the line. Here, there is an unwritten contract to the passionate exploits that any of us will perform or allow to be performed in our names. These limits come from where we feel comfortable – i.e. where we know we have as close to 100% odds as can be achieved of coming out alive.
For the fact that thinking in this way prior to hiking onto the trail is rational behavior, beauteous (but extreme) landscapes have a way of clouding our judgment as does the peer pressure of friends. I’m sure that said young woman would tell us her tale of woe originated from being part of a group that wanted to see the sights. She may have been an experienced hiker. She may have seen someone’s pictures and thought, "I can do this!" She may have been someone’s girlfriend getting drug out into a day of adventure, and she simply thought that this would endear her to him.
Nevertheless, she wasn’t prepared for what she got into, and that made all the difference. Call it applying Robert Frost to the harsh realities of snow, ice, and frost or anything you want, but the feelings that she had after she took said path where one direction led to a white wood and the other path led to all of things that normal everyday college kids did had to be a complete revelation of the scariest kind.
I could be wrong. Maybe she lived every moment like it was her last and being here at Ricketts Glen in the winter was just another example of that (though the lack of preparation states that it was more likely that she simply didn’t have experience). Maybe she came from a family of mountain men who made her think these abilities were in her DNA. Maybe, maybe, maybe, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because she entered the perfect storm and came out losing to a TKO on the referee’s decision to call the match.
On the return side of the trip, we have to wonder where her day to day life ended up. Maybe she went the opposite direction of the outdoors and came to love the big city and the nightlife by embracing mindless entertainment on channels such as E (the kind of things that don’t cause a person to fight for his her life as the clock ticks down to extinction)! Maybe she found God. Not knowing her, I can’t say for sure, but one thing I would bet with absolute certainty is that if she was asked, she tells her story with a sigh and exhales deeply for what could have been on that day way back when and how she’s thankful that the people who came to get her knew a hell of a lot more than she did about victim extraction from the winter woods.
If hindsight is 20/20, our introductory understanding is 20/200, or at least we believe that’s all the worse is. In reality, it could be as bad as legally blind. Going into my first trip to Ricketts Glen in the winter, I had a few things going for me, but as to how much they truly helped me out, I can’t say. I had been on the trail (check), I had hiked before (check), and I had a dad who really knew his stuff about being in the out of doors to the point he passed what he could on to me (check), but I was still heading for a collision with conflict.
This sense of making mistakes is common. Chris Bonington, a climber on Mount Everest in 1975, reflected on how his teammate Mick Burke made a mistake going to the top alone by agreeing that he made a mistake, but he also reflected how he and many others would have done the same. While not even possessing a fraction of their experience, I was entering into a noble club of wanting for adventure, but a club of potentially risking my own neck for it.
Unlike many others, I made it back, but had the universe been in a different place, had a butterfly been flapping his wings in just the right way, and / or had I done just one thing differently, this cautionary tale might actually be an obituary.
Nevertheless, if the universe had chosen me as its victim, I could have been her, and in some ways, I would have been far worse since I was alone on my trek. She might have had no equipment so to speak of and it might have been a wonder that she got to the place that she did before the bad stuff came down, but she had friends who could phone the cavalry when the moment of life or death occurred. For all that these guys should have known about being prepared to enter a winter waterfall trail, let alone taking an inexperienced hiker to this place, they at least did what they had to do and brought things back to where they should be when they got in touch with the federales and their rescue posse.
Of all of the things that happened to her that day, knowing how hard it is for me to get a signal up there in good weather in 2013, I can’t imagine what it was like before the omnipresence of phones that would have been five years ago. I can’t imagine the desperation of the phone call and how they raised smoke signals that got the crews up there pronto tonto. All I can say is that when the chips were down, her friends came through for her – no matter what else that they did or didn’t do, which got her into trouble in the first place.
I sit here now and I think about the moment of impact. Those instants when we realize that Mother Nature is preparing to tell us what it’s cooking as it finishes us off with a Rock Bottom / People’s Elbow and leaves our decimated corpses out on display for all of the fans watching from the peanut gallery. When I think about what the accident might have looked like if it was caught on camera, I see how the action seems to go so S… L… O… W… L… Y.
I think back to a rescue that I saw performed in the later days of 2008 when my wife and my friend Steph that I had known from my days as a teenager in the days before the Air Force, went up to Ricketts Glen for an enjoyable day in the mountains. While descending the trail, we came upon a woman who was being stretchered down the three-foot wide paths between the Harrison Wright and Sheldon Reynolds waterfalls. It was all that a handful of bodies could do to slowly pass the stretcher through the area to get her to safety on a sunny autumn day.
I could only imagine what it would be like in the winter to evacuate a helpless sack of dead weight, which is what an injured person would be, no matter how petite her feminine frame might have been.
Thinking about what it was like to hike it with two good feet without crampons in winter is hard enough to imagine. If she came from the top of the hill, she would have had to go down the sliding board that is the Mohawk waterfall (nothing else would have been "that rough"). If she came from the bottom, she would have had to ascend the now icy, thin curves and imposing cliffs of Sheldon Reynolds, Harrison Wright, and the Erie Waterfalls. Simply put, without crampons and facing the steel colored extra thick and slippery ice of these chutes to the freezing spirals of churning gray / green waters is suicidal.
For one, many of the cliffs are straight down. The thirty-foot fall in and of itself on many of these drops would split a body open on the rocky ground below like the results of a child busting a piñata with a well-swung stick. Those cliffs that are actually at a slight angle are still somewhere just under a 90° angle from the ground. The 15-25° difference that might occur is only enough to create an unstoppable rolling force before said falling body will inevitably be thrust into waters that will induce hypothermic conditions on its victim immediately.
According to WITN News in Eastern Carolina, the survival times in freezing waters go from 30-90 minutes for water that is just above freezing. Even at 50-60°, the water would give a person one to six hours before death. In the meantime, hypothermia would go medieval on its victim with symptoms that ranged from slurred speech, abnormally slow breathing, cold and pale skin, exhaustion, and a total lack of energy. If that’s not enough, apathy is also a symptom so a person would basically have no interest in fighting for his or her life.
And it’s not like just getting a victim out of the creek is enough. Then comes the question of what to do about wet clothes.
In short, it’s logical to bet against the survival options of a hypothermic victim that is alone and saturated with icy water. If the air is cold and there aren’t enough towels to dry and still have some left to wrap the victim up with, there are a host of problems that will be substituted for the problems that are alleviated in getting said person out of his or her wet clothes.
Here, now, nine years later, I think about what might have happened if I did get wet. The discomfort of the cold wind is minor compared to what would have happened if I fell into the water in a way that saw my pack get soaked with me. Sure, if that was dry, I would have different pants to put on. I would have a dry T-shirt and sweatshirt as well as socks, but what if I actually went in the water?
Then all of those options would have been up the creek - literally.
Anyone who has ever done anything in winter knows the feeling of cold ears, cold toes, and rosy red cheeks. What would I have done if I was starting to turn blue after having a minor slide into the creek? How the hell would I have walked out of the snowy creek area to my car, which was located over one mile away before the clock shut down on me?
Knowing the realities of winter and how much tougher than me that badass bitch Mother Nature is, I know now that my solo hiking goose would have been cooked, even with people knowing where I was hiking since nobody would miss me until it was far too late, cold, and dark at night for the white knights of the rescue crew to do anything about it until the next morning when I would surely be frozen stiff.
In that case, that person who hiked the waterfall on that day wouldn’t be a writer. He’d be planted in a cemetery as a cautionary tale.
Entering the trail, all was what it was. For the equipment I had and the stuff that I should have had, I still had a sense of confidence on my feet having hiked trails in State and National Parks before I went on this hike. I still had some of the equipment that I needed, and I had road tested it in locations in Pennsylvania and on the Colorado Plateau. I would simply keep hiking until I felt uncomfortable.
And so, in the moment of decision in 2004, there was no 20/20 hindsight because I had made a second decision while making my initial stupid decision to bypass the warning sign. This choice that I made was that I would promise myself that I would be careful in the Glen. It sounds easy to say that I would watch where I stepped and the like, but in the simple act of saying that, I have found that just watching where I step lowers the chances of accidents.
If I’ve learned anything from hiking it’s that "not thinking" or simply getting too casual is the perfect recipe for disaster. If I’m going to land on my ass, it’s because there was no immediate danger, and so I’ll walk and walk and walk, instinctively instead of precisely, and I’ll be casually going uphill, like I did at Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia, and I’ll step on a wet rock and after an acrobatic flip, I’ll end up with my shin slammed into a thick stone that makes me wince in a tearful expression of "son of a bitch!," "Mother F**ker!," or just the extra loud expression of all-purpose "not good-ed-ness" that is "GRAWRGRHEW!!!" When it’s over, I’ll walk up the rest of the hill, and I’ll go to the waterfalls that are at the end of it like I planned because that’s what a "man" would do. I wouldn’t throw the whole trip away because I got a boo-boo, even if it hurt like hell. I’d do what I had to do in order to suck it up and make it happen.
"There’s no crying in waterfall hiking!"
Looking over at my hiking companion, I would examine the dent in my leg. I’d take my friend’s medical supplies and try to clean it well while putting a bandage over top of it. Eventually, I’d even hike back across the creek I trudged barefoot through to get to this non-descript hill, and I’d go back to my wife and her friend who would give me the evil eye as they told me to be more careful or to stop hiking with said friend’s husband since he appears to be a bad luck injury magnet. But I would shrug it off and think about going back for more waterfalls the next day, and I would do that because that’s what a "man" would do. And somehow, this tough guy would have fun and think nothing about the gnarly cool wound he has and feel like he’s accomplished something "tough." This would last until he came to see dark spots on his foot and lower shin that were the telltale markings of his having managed to get his leg infected since it was now all too obvious that he didn’t properly clean the wound before he tried to hike out of the woods on it.
But all the same, it sure would have been a "manly" hike.
But even in being careful, there is danger of getting too complacent. Just as I got injured in Dolly Sods, I would find different ways to mess myself up all over again. For instance, after telling my wife that there was no grave danger on a "civilized" "family hike" up Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica and getting her to be brave enough to ascend the falls without fear by being careful enough to hike through the rocky steps of this waterfall without incident, I still managed to slip on the wet under-rocks of said river.
In short, I did this because I took off my sandals after finding it easier to hike barefoot than to try to walk through the creek with rocks caught in the area between the soles of my feet and the hiking sandals that I was wearing. As is common with the DNA of people, I had the foresight to prevent greater tragedy or calamity in someone else. I didn’t have the capability to do it for myself.
All the same, I also had the foresight in my DNA to prevent the fall from being worse than it was. In this, the slip was blocked by my hand, but in blocking my face from the streambed, my hand got jammed up and scratched up enough that there was minor blood showing, which either made me look all gnarly and cool or it made me look like I was some haphazard gimp who should be getting observed and monitored at the end of one of those parental leashes, less I have to get sent to the hospital for some extreme medical procedure!
In the end, I wonder if perhaps I deserved getting into this bruised-up situation for my "skilled waterfall aficionado" hubris, but alas, the bruise was such a minor thing that I laughed it off in the face of the visions of a great hike in Jamaica. Nevertheless, I think about it now and know that I need to learn from the casual quickness by which it happened, especially if I plan on hiking the more intense waterfalls and trails of my country’s parks.
These things often feel like business as usual, but that doesn’t mean that they are.
For all that these other places were, they were beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade my visits to them for anything. They made me who I am, but Ricketts Glen in winter was unlike anything I had done before or after, and for this, it stands out now as one of the central images in my quest to fulfill my dreams of destination and accomplishment hiking. Sure, there were other destination hikes, such as my adventure to the Wave, which was largely unmarked scorched earth of the Colorado Plateau smack dab on the Arizona / Utah border, and there were the trips to Sullivan Run, which saw me hiking down a stream filled with waterfalls, but Ricketts Glen in winter was the origin and the epitome of danger and intensity mixed with photographic and accomplishment-based reward. From the moment I wandered down the snowy path and arrived at the first falls, the Onondaga, I knew that I was in for some serious revisions in my plans to just casually "circle the balloon" in the casual way that I thought that I would trudge through the wintery world. Equally so, I was also going to be revising how I thought about destination hiking and who I wanted to be when it came to this hiking hobby.
The first problem that Onondaga represented was summarized not in its fifteen feet of height, but rather, it was in the sliding board that its wooden staircase had become. Now covered with ice, all of the stairs were filled in with snow at a perfect 45° angle pointed to the base of the waterfall. Thus, I had a choice: turn around or go forward. In the split second that I took to ponder this, I figured that I would keep going around and around to the other side and I would never have to hike up the steps again, so I just went down to the pipedream that I was choosing to believe. If there was anything stupid that I thought that day, it was that the first waterfall would be the only difficult one.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
From this point, I proceeded to take a ton of pictures of everything that remotely resembled an icicle, a waterfall, or a blue sky contrasting the pure whiteness of the snow that settled on the mountain I was now descending. The second waterfall appeared quickly, and I carefully navigated the path to get down to it until the 38 feet of the FL Ricketts and the wooden bridge in front of it was ancient history.
At this point on the trail, there was a longer flat stretch of terrain to walk through. In spring and summer, this section of the stream features some small drops, steps, and slides of no more than a few feet - only enough to cause white water. There are many parts of Ricketts Glen that are like this. You’ll find them on both sides of the V and down the balloon string in addition to just this small section of the hike.
In the geologic history of time, parts of the streambed have become elevated and a solid line of rock has come to overhang from the creek. This gap between the water and the rock creates an echo chamber that plays the song of the mountain glen at an increasingly loud volume. Nevertheless, in winter, the stream seems to crash more than sing as the echo chambers still play despite being impeded by frozen sections.
Along the way, these anonymous mini falls leave the stream in such a way that it swirls and trickles through the fallen tree branches and the cracks and crevasses of rock that form the stream’s path. Occasionally, a foamy mass will rest on the water’s surface from the churning and froth. These masses of brownish bubbles find their way to the sides of the stream where logs hold them prisoner to the stream’s constant movement.
In season, you will be more prone to see bushy clumps of leaves, which will do their best to obscure some of the more intricate drops that carve their way through the flat sheets of rock that seem to lay everywhere. At different parts of the park, many of these flat stones have been moved to become the path itself. At other places, they become the steps that make it possible to climb up and down the cliffs. Mostly, they are so omnipresent that they crop up and poke out of the stream in every single nook and cranny.
The only difference in winter is the sheet of white, which covers everything in a permanent strangulation chokehold – at least until the warmer weathers of spring. From big boulders that impede the water’s flow and outstretched logs that hold one side of the stream to the other, to fallen tree limbs, tiny rocks, and ice piles, the gully between the mountains had become a winter wonderland. However, at every station along the way, there is a waterfall, which has become frosted over to the point it is a near solid pile of ice. Stretching out from its sides is a rib-shaped set of ice daggers that adorn the valley’s rock walls like statues in an art museum or European cathedral.
While poets will try to capture this image with words and photographers will look to replicate the moment in an image hammered into film or digitized as such, nobody will ever truly duplicate what is down here.
The only way to know is to see it with your own eyes. We can try to spell it out or paint it out for you, but the result is far less than the reality.
Eventually, when the water reaches its next punctuation mark after the flattened out section is complete, there is a third drop, which falls into an area that is hollowed out with a fifty to sixty foot high wall off to my right side. This barrier stands tall and wide, connecting it to the fourth fall over a hundred feet away. These inter-connected falls, the Shawnee and the Huron, represent a very iconic image at Ricketts Glen in the greener seasons, but when the Mercury drops in the thermometers, it becomes something altogether new and wondrous look at.
To this day, I still contemplate seeing it again, even knowing the risks that it would take to get into this area.
Once again, as I stood looking at the drop that the frozen stairs represented, I had to make a decision here. The Shawnee was thirty feet tall, but it’s not a huge waterfall in retrospect to some of the other waterfalls. In fact, the steps feel shorter and they’re far less manicured than the wooden staircase at the Onondaga, but they are still maintained and well-built. Thus, this short appearance to an otherwise bigger waterfall is true in both winter and summer. As a result, I had no problem going to the bottom of the stairs by circumnavigating some of the flatter rocks / ice sheets on an improvised trail that I was pushing down on from the left wall’s side. It didn’t take much to get to the bottom, and when I was there, I was staring at thirty-foot icicles hanging from the far side of the wall. While the 41-foot Huron awaited me at the end of the path, I first had to marvel and gawk, "oohing" and "aahing" at how the deep greens on the wall meshed with the rock and ice that now stood beneath them as the columns of ice rivaled anything ever accomplished by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
In between this vision and the solid ground I stood on was the water that pushed down from the Shawnee. Most of it was frozen, but a small hole that stood out like a mouth appeared in the middle. On the left side, a log that had collapsed into the stream protruded and pointed toward the sky. As I marveled, I was drawn to the button on my camera.
I took pictures of everything. I took them in color, and I took them with my older, smaller camera in black and white. I took close ups, and I took shots that reflected the panoramic amphitheater that I was now in. I took images to compare and contrast. When I was done, I marveled some more.
If there is a Heaven and it is freezing cold, then here is its cathedral.
As all things do, eventually, it was time to move on. I wandered down the path. From the bottom of the staircase of the Shawnee, there is a good deal of room to move. Some paths on the other side are only three-feet or so wide, but here, things felt comfortable until I came to the edge of the Huron Staircase.
It wasn’t so much that the path to the bottom was snowed at the 45° degree angle that the Onondaga was. It wasn’t even so much that the path led to another pathway that dropped to another staircase that dropped at a 45° angle. It was that the path dropped off significantly and straight down on my right. I thought about it for exactly point two seconds.
My day was over. I had seen four of the 22 waterfalls. With the knowledge of my limits and the inability to go down this obstacle, I vowed to find my way back here in the future and to attack this problem from the bottom in a way that it could be ascended because in my oh so correct but unprofessional opinion, there was nothing doing from this angle.
However, with my uncertainty and realism, I started to wonder if there was anything doing from the bottom of the trail. Only time would tell.
The walk back to the top of the Shawnee was nothing. I don’t remember having any difficulties whatsoever even with my Gore Tex shoes. The flat path was also easy. I retraced my shoe prints and made it back to the FL Ricketts waterfall as well. As I did, I began to worry about getting back up the upper staircase when the solution to my problems shined out like a sign on the side of the trail.
Actually, it really was a sign on the side of the trail that bore the marker that here was an alternative path that went to the Highland Trail.
Being a relatively intelligent guy that had some degree of smarts, at least if the bachelor’s degree and master’s credits that I had attained on my way to a full degree in 2010 had anything to say about it, I jumped at the option of easiness as opposed to a difficult conundrum, which is what the Onondaga represented to me at that point in time. I didn’t feel much in the way of sorrow or loss of potential treasures that I would encounter. Instead, I began to sweat up a storm under multiple shirts and sweatshirts. I was getting more and more exhausted as well, and I wondered when I would reach the end of the trail and get to the Highland Trail so that I could ascend the final part of the trail to Lake Leigh.
Eventually, an object in motion found the trail, and eventually, a worn out shell of the hiker that had begun the trail magically thinking that he could make the entire upper loop made it back to his car and pretty much collapsed on the seat of his S-10 pickup truck, which would carry him back through the Endless Mountains to Bloomsburg and civilization. From there, he would pass the lights of a smaller shopping mall and head along one-lane highways past the nose-shaped rock and through the rising smoke of Centralia down through the mining town of Ashland and the mall at Frackville to the point where Route 61 drops and curves in a high-speed NASCAR road race all the way to the Fairlane Village Mall at the edge of Pottsville.
From here, it’s less than an hour until home sweet home. The tunes play and the stanky clothing that has been discarded in a pile starts to stink from the heat of the cab, but nothing matters except whether the pictures will turn out (Oh, they will! They have to!), and what people will think when they see them (some are impressed, others respond appropriately to the things that friends will be required to say, and others seem to care less - give them the skyscrapers of New York City, give them shopping malls, or give them warm and comfy chairs close to the television where they can watch sitcoms and reality TV, they seem to say).
And like that, I am home. I am changed, but it’s not written into my flesh in anything that a person can see (fortunately, it’s not written as a scar or a broken bone either). Instead, there is a kernel in my mind that says that it’s time to get back to the waterfalls again.
As time goes on, it will get louder and louder until it is answered, but it will be answered. The call to adventure can only be refused so long.
Ask Joseph Campbell.
TO BE CONTINUED