19 Apr Silent Lakes Failure
We have a folder in our “pictures” library on the computer entitled, “2015 Silent Lake Failure”. I write a lot about our adventures, and I try hard not to sugarcoat the reality of mountaineering and backpacking. Sure, there are definitely those, “hair blowing in the wind at sunset” moments, but there are also a lot of really bad moments, which somehow manifest themselves into awesome stories once we actually make it back to civilization in one piece to talk about them. As I was scrolling through our photographs today (as I often do for no reason at all), the “2015 Silent Lake Failure” folder caught my eye. I looked through the photos. Stunning. Awe-inspiring. Not one photo of a lake in sight.
I saw a photo of Silent Lakes on a hiking forum, and decided that we needed to go there as soon as possible. The route description was hazy at best – you hike to a spot called “Easy Pass” in the North Cascades, and then descend to the Fischer Creek Basin. From there, instead of staying on the maintained trail, you follow a tiny waytrail for a short distance, until it disappears all together. Then, you meander up to the headwall of the basin. According to route descriptions, to access the lakes you can A) ascend an, “absolutely hellacious gully”, or B) travel a few hundred yards further into the basin to find a “Class 2” series of ledges up into the Silent Lakes area. I knew the trip would be adventurous, but it seemed relatively straight forward.
There are times in life when the universe gives you subtle signs, or “omens”. Sometimes people are extremely astute, and they recognize these omens as a cue to change their plans. Other times, there are people like me, who get smacked on the head with a metal cake plan, and do not find it foreboding in the least. En route to our hike, we stopped at the most amazing gluten free bakery (it’s called 5B’s, you should go there!) in the tiny town of Concrete, Washington. While waiting for our quiche, I meandered over to their “take n’ bake” stand up commercial freezer. As I peered into the freezer, I heard the familiar sound of the motor “kicking on”, followed immediately by the intense pain of something extremely heavy landing on my head. Aaron appeared out of nowhere and somehow caught the object on its upward bounce from my rattled cranium. As I struggled to uncross my eyeballs, I saw Aaron holding a massive metal cake display pan. The pan had been perched on the top of the freezer, and had probably be inching its way forward for months, each time the motor vibrated to life. Somehow, on that Monday morning, it decided to vibrate the one millimeter necessary for it to plummet directly onto my head. Thankfully, I was uninjured – we left the bakery with an excessive amount of free raspberry scones from the extremely apologetic and devastated bakery owners, and a nice bump on my head. The quiche was so delicious, that there was absolutely no way a tumbling cake pan could be prophetic.
Stuffed with quiche and scones, we started our hike and after a few hours we arrived at the head of the basin, near the horrible gully. We immediately saw some “ledges”, and I had printed out previous trip reports from others who had visited the area – one report even had a photo of a gentleman beginning the supposed ascent of the ledges – so we thought we knew EXACTLY where to start. We headed up a few ramps, and quickly found ourselves precariously perched above a traverse with a decidedly fatal exposure. Backtracking, we started looking for alternatives. We found another “ledge-ish” looking slope, and headed up – again, we were almost immediately on extremely technical terrain. I ditched my pack, and started “scouting” possible routes. This seemed to be working great, until I ended up on some low Class 5 rock, having a mild panic attack about downclimbing, and utilizing some spiffy deep-breathing techniques to calm myself down before carefully working my way back down to Aaron.
Have you ever seen the movie “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss”? If not, you should make it a priority. It is the greatly unknown sequel to the infamous, “The Christmas Story” (i.e. the “You’ll shoot your eye out” movie). The movie follows the same family from the Christmas Story, only in this movie, it documents their preparation for and subsequent traveling to their summer vacation cabin. In one scene of the movie, they take a short cut on a dirt road and somehow they pass the exact same abandoned refrigerator about 15 times. This is how I felt trying to find the “ramp system”. No matter where we tried to access the ramp, we kept ending up in exactly the same spot. Over and over again.
Aaron and I scouted for a possible route for hours. At one point, we decided to attempt the gully of death. We started up, staying close together so that we wouldn’t kick rocks down on the other person. I’ve walked on loose rocks before, and it has never bothered me. To say that these rocks were “loose” is a bit misleading. The rocks were actually murderous. If you looked at a rock incorrectly, perhaps gave it a bit of a judgmental glance, the rock would dislodge and hurl itself directly at your eye. Even now, just writing about the rocks in that gully, I have no doubt that they can sense my hostility and that they are desperately flinging themselves down, trying to squelch my negativity. This was without a doubt, the absolute worst gully I have ever experienced in my life. We didn’t have helmets, and so we retreated yet again.
In a last ditch effort, I saw what looked like a plausible route to the left of the death gully. I slowly started ascending, being very careful to levitate over the rocks wherever possible. Sadly, I did not channel my “inner David Blaine” appropriately. One piece of my hair brushed across a breadloaf sized rock, completely dislodging it from a seemingly secure location and sending it tumbling towards me. I yelled at Aaron to hide, just as the rock bounced down and sandwiched on top of my feet, in between my calves and the ledge that I was standing on with just my toes. “I’ve got to let this rock fall!”, I yelled to Aaron, as I was simultaneously trying to hold onto the rock and also not slip from my perch. Aaron assured me he was clear, and I delicately lifted my right foot, sending the rock violently bouncing down the slopes below. Shaking, I uttered two words, “I’m done.”
Exhausted, both mentally and physically, we retreated to a knoll at the head of the valley. We decided that camping in this spot would be a decent consolation prize, and since we had wanted an adventure, we both agreed that we had certainly received that. We spent the evening taking photographs, eating our freeze-dried dinner, and not using the fishing poles that we had brought for our intended campsite at the lake.
Remember when I said that the rocks were evil in the Fischer Basin? I wasn’t lying. In the middle of the night, we experienced quite possibly one of the most horrifying moments of my life. The rocks had most likely been plotting this since they were disappointed that we hadn’t completely left the area after their failed attempt at killing me, at least that is my best guess. At approximately 3:30 AM, I was suddenly roused from my sleep by the most deafening noise I have ever heard. In a groggy state of panic, I looked over to see Aaron frantically trying to get out of the tent, “What’s that noise?!”, I yelled. “A rock avalanche!”, he yelled back. I can hear the noise perfectly in my memory when I close my eyes, and it is so difficult to describe. Just imagine what it might sound like if an entire mountain collapsed and the sound echoed over and over again, so deafeningly loud that your eardrums hurt. That is the sound that woke us up. We couldn’t tell where the rocks were, where they were coming from or where they would end up. All we knew is that we wanted to get OUT of the tent (not that it could have protected us anyway), so that we could run for cover.
We weren’t camped in a dangerous spot – in fact, we had analyzed the location before we set up the tent in the event of potential rockfall, but this rockfall sounded SO gigantic, that we were sure that we were about to be annihilated. Suddenly, the noise started to weaken. The reverberations lessened. We heard the last few, stray rocks bouncing down a mountain to their new resting spot, and that was it. The avalanche had ended. Hearts pounding, we lay on our sleeping pads, absolutely terrified. “Holy &%$@!”, was pretty much our mutual sentiment, before we miraculously drifted off to sleep again.
I really wanted to see the Silent Lakes. I wanted to say I’ve been there. I wanted to fish in the lake. I wanted to share the photos of a place that most people don’t visit (understandably). But we didn’t make it. We couldn’t find the right route, and rocks tried to kill us multiple times. I’ve “failed” a lot of times in my life. In fact, there are times when I’ve felt like I’ve failed at life in general – we all have. And yet, failure is defined so differently in the mountains, because I don’t think it actually exists. Aaron and I spent two days together exploring one of the most beautiful areas that I’ve ever seen – we worked through some difficulties and made a decision that continuing would no longer be safe. We camped in a spectacular location, had the most terrifying night in my wilderness adventuring history, and woke up and enjoyed a beautiful hike back to the car. As it turns out, there’s no failure there at all – just a different outcome than we expected.
When I head off into the wilderness I do have high expectations. I set goals, and I want to achieve them. I still want to visit Silent Lakes, and undoubtedly, we will go back and put some more effort into finding the correct route, but the wilderness is so spectacular that it forces us to redefine “failure” to ourselves. Ask any climber who didn’t summit a peak if their trip was a, “failure”, and you will get a resounding “no!”. The mountains have a way of gifting you constantly, so that no time spent in their presence is wasted. Sure, we might not have seen Silent Lakes, but we saw the sunset over Fischer Valley. We might not have dipped our toes in their icy depths, but we devoured blueberries on the hike out. We didn’t see our reflections on the lake shore, but we sat side by side and quietly sipped coffee at sunrise as the world around us slowly began to wake up.
I learn so many lessons about life from my experiences in the mountains, and yet, still – I am hard on myself when it comes to my “failures” in life. Why? Why can’t I treat myself with the same grace that the wilderness bestows upon me? The truth is, I can. There is beauty in every mistake, every expectation that falls short, every goal not met. Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” I am so bad at trusting that the dots will connect – I have been absolutely blinded by my “failures”, meanwhile completely out of touch with the amazing opportunities that have blossomed from those moments. I have been unkind to myself and unforgiving – absolutely unwilling to accept that I am a completely imperfect human being. The mountains – with their jagged peaks, unforgiving rocks and rugged terrain – can be so kind and gentle – constantly sharing the most magical, unforgettable memories with even the most disappointed hikers.
On the way home, we were energized and excited about the trip, not dismayed. We excitedly relived the more frightening moments from the trip, and reflected sentimentally on our time together. As we drove away from the trailhead, I unconsciously rubbed the bump on my head, and suddenly thought back to the cake pan incident – so much had transpired in merely 24 hours! Remembering that we still had a box of baked goods, I hungrily dove into the remainder of the raspberry scones. As I sunk my teeth into the buttery crust, a raspberry flavored avalanche of crumbs tumbled softly from the pastry to my lap – I couldn’t help but laugh.