Minimalism…and the Lessons of Aasgard
by Andy Dappen
I’m jealous. Watching the many trail runners passing my wife and me in the Enchantment Lakes Basin, I envy their tiny loads and their ease of travel. Being a trail runner before the age of knee problems, I remember the joy of traveling fast and far with a ridiculously small pack.
Speed and movement are weather-beating and warmth- generating strategies for such runners, and these are not groundless strategies. By moving fast, you can often beat changing weather conditions back to the trailhead. And though you’re clad in thin layers and might only carry a windshell, hat, and gloves for added warmth, movement can keep you comfortably warm. So for many runners the ingredients to keep moving (food and water) constitute most of their load.
The strategy can fail, however, when situations go south on you. A misstep on a cobble that sprains an ankle, a stubbed toe tossing you head first into a boulder, a slip on a sandy slab spilling you onto the edge of flesh-slashing rock… in the interval between strides such incidences can transform you from a speed machine to a wreck on the side of the road.
I’ve fallen several times on long runs and have narrowly missed being bludgeoned, sliced, or impaled by obstacles. I know from firsthand experience that runners need contingencies in their load for the ‘what ifs.’ What if a slip hurts you or your partner? What if you get temporarily lost and benighted? What if a new health issue of your own or an unknown health issue of a companion stops you? Are you carrying enough to survive?
Still, I’m still jealous watching the unencumbered runners stream by, and I find myself believing I’m carrying more than a hiker should. I mentally review my pack and make a list of what I should have left behind. When I’m done, my mental pile consists of my down coat, rain pants, extra socks, one of two hats I carry, some of my food and water, and a number of the repair items in my ditty bag. My slimmed down pack might be half the size of my current pack.
A few hours later, Jan and I have walked into the lower Enchantments, expressed our ‘wows’ over some of the prettiest lakes in the Cascades, and are returning to Aasgard Pass where we will descend to Colchuck Lake where we camped last night and will camp again tonight. During the afternoon we have experienced half hours of sunshine intermixed with stints of brooding clouds. The autumn sky can’t decide on its mood, yet I’ve been able to stay warm with a few shirts on under a wind-shell.
About 1.5 miles before reaching Aasgard Pass, charcoal clouds shoved by strong winds swallow the sun and surrounding peaks. Even though we’re walking uphill, we’re headed into a stiff wind that bleeds us of heat. We put on our down coats, hats, and gloves and keep walking. Soon isolated snow flakes streak by us at warp speeds. Minutes later great herds of frozen crystals are spilling from the clouds. We stop to don our rain coats so that our down coats don’t wet out. “Put on your baseball cap under your wool hat — it will shield your eyes from the snow,” I tell my wife. “We should put on your rain pants, too.”
Our rain pants are extremely light and have no zippers so we must remove boots to get them on. Given the day’s changeable moods, my wife is hopeful the snow will stop soon and doesn’t want to hassle with the pants. “Let’s just keep moving,” she says.
At the lip of Aasgard Pass, we confront a raging blizzard. Winds funneling up the pass at over 50 miles per hour smack us head-on with a stinging combination of falling and blowing snow. The snow cakes onto my glasses yet pelt Jan’s unprotected eyes. At the very top of the pass we huddle behind a bus-sized boulder providing some sanctuary.
Jan was already concerned about getting her rubbery legs down to Colchuck Lake without miss-stepping and taking a spill. Now, with a few inches of snow lubricating the slabs and boulders we must traverse, she’s triply worried about the descent.
“I wish we had the MicroSpikes,” she says. I agree. Given that the forecast mentioned the possibility of snow, I wonder why I never even considered bringing these tire chains for the feet. October is a time to expect mood swings in the high mountains. Apparently I’ve been blinded by the lure of traveling light.
“We need to put on our rain pants,” I tell Jan. This location, swirling with eddies of spin drift, is much worse than the place where we should have donned the pants earlier. Jan complains about taking her boots off but I insist. I, too, must remove my shoes to slip on rain pants and find my fingers cold enough that I barely have the strength to untie the laces. It won’t take much more cold exposure to make my fingers useless.
Suddenly a group of four that has worked up the pass pulls into the shelter behind our boulder. Their storm gear is caked with snow and rime. “How is it down in the Lower Lake Basin?” the leader asks.
“Much better — you’ll be able to get out of the wind,” I tell him. “How was it coming up the pass?” I ask.
“Bad.” he says. “Can hardly see a thing up top…but it does get better lower down.”
Another twosome heading our direction and carrying overnight gear pulls into the eddy behind our boulder. “Whew. Isn’t this something?” they say by way of a greeting. We compare notes for a moment and I think about asking the couple to join forces with us on the descent. The benefits and drawbacks of pooling resources are complicated, and this is neither the time nor place to inherit incompetent companions. Before I’ve solved the quandary of this question, the twosome slips out into the storm and disappears.
Finally we’re ready. Virtually all our clothing is on, zippers and hoods are battened down, and yet we’re still cold. I think about that mental pile of items I had omitted from the pack earlier and am grateful that was just a thought exercise. I’m no longer jealous of the runner’s pack.
“Should we really do this?” my wife asks. “We could die out there.”
Jan sometimes blows problems out of proportion, but these are dicey conditions. “Our safest option,” I tell her, “is to turn around and walk out through the Lower Enchantments.”
“Go all the way out that way?” she asks incredulously.
“The winds are much better in that direction, we’ll be warm as long as we’re walking, and we have headlamps so we can keep walking.”
“I feel too tired to make it all the way out,” she says.
“It may not be a good option, but it’s safer than what’s on the far side of this boulder.”
“But our camp is so much closer down there at Colchuck,” she says. She’s quiet and I’m pretty sure she’s imagining herself back at our pitched tent wrapped up in her sleeping bag. “Let’s try going down here.”
We shove off and, even though I use my hand to shield by glasses, within a minute they are caked with snow on the outside and fog on the inside. “I can’t see a thing,” I yell to Jan.
Confidence is a fragile creature and little things, like finding yourself blind, can tip it the wrong way.
It’s not a good time to alarm Jan but my inner voice is talking. “The two of you could die out here,” it says.
Unforeseen problems often beget unexpected solutions.
My blizzard-induced blindness spikes my anxieties, but Jan quickly recognizes she can’t take a backseat role in our efforts. She becomes the eyes of our descent and switches from being an anxious passenger to an participant in whatever happens. From behind me she scans the gauzy white world before us for the gray pyramids of cairns marking the route through the slabs that surround us.
When she sees a cairn, she points me in the right direction. Without my glasses I grope down ahead of her with less speed than usual and this benefits Jan – she doesn’t feel hurried and can see exactly where my feet stick or slide. This boosts her confidence and her performance. It’s a different example that to hurry-up you sometimes need to slow down.
Occasionally we encounter areas where the visibility is too poor to make out a distant cairn. These become anxieties for Jan that I offset. I know the route through these slabs fairly well and, even though whiteout conditions and snowed-over rocks changes the look of it all, I sense when we need to move left or right. “Let’s go this way for a while,” I yell to her through the wind when her visual scan comes up empty. “We’ll come back here if we don’t find more cairns.”
The strategy keeps working. Between Jan’s eyes and my mental map, we stay on course despite the raging wind, shadowless light, and the snow obscuring the route.
Some 500 vertical feet below the pass, we see the twosome who started down before us. They are few hundred feet off route to our right and have taken shelter behind a cluster of large boulders. I wave to them and one gives an acknowledging wave back. This kicks off a mental debate. They are partially sheltered and have overnight gear, but I wonder whether they need help. If it’s route finding they need, I’m moderately confident that Jan and I, working together, will continue crabbing our way down to safety. If they need anything else, we have little to offer. All our clothing is on and if we don’t move we will quickly chill and become a liability to ourselves and others.
Their gestures don’t reveal distress and the traverse over to them will require several minutes of careful stepping across snow-covered rocks. Not at all sure that I’m making the right moral choice, I decide our safety net is already strained. I stay on route and keep heading down.
In total it takes us 80 minutes to drop 800 vertical feet and descend the slick portion of the pass where staying on route is most important. By the time we reach the talus fields where wandering off route would slow us down but not be dangerous, we find ourselves below the worst of the wind. We still have a tedious trudge down slippery, snow-covered talus, but I’m no longer worried about becoming the subject of a story in tomorrow’s newspaper.
Even now, immediately after finding ourselves below the hazard zone, I’m incredulous that on an autumn hike in a familiar place, our systems were stretched so thin. A little bad luck thrown on top of the unusually severe conditions could have resulted in a far less cheery outcome. Nothing like extermination to bum you out.
The fact that we that we didn’t slip into the Big Sleep, leaves us both with a post-storm buzz. We already appreciate that life is sweet. We appreciate that life is even sweeter here around our home in the center of the state. And, today, we appreciate that at the bottom of a particularly snowy pass life is the sweetest of all.
Along with this adventure, Andy Dappen published The Lessons of Aasgard, his thoughts on how a few small tweaks to the pack would have provided a much bigger safety net. Read those lessons here.