Narrative #5 - Backpacking
By: Ron Reil
I have been a backpacker for many years, and during my time in the high country I have had numerous interesting experiences. Probably none compare with an event that happened during a seven day solo backpacking trip, in late October, into the Sawtooth Wilderness in central Idaho some years ago. I did not experience any "near death" experiences, but the events that occurred during this trip were most remarkable.
That year Autumn in Boise had been very dry and enjoyable. The weather seemed as though it didn't want to let go of the warm lazy days of summer. There were some Pacific storms well out to sea, but so far all previous weather systems had tracked well to the north of Idaho. I decided that there might just be enough time to get in one more trip into the high country before it was locked up in winter's icy grip for six months.
I planned to do a seven day solo cross country traverse of the Sawtooth Wilderness, starting my hike at the trail-head at Iron Creek Campground. I did not like the idea of leaving my rig parked in the trail-head parking lot for the duration of my hike, so I talked my wife Gretchen into driving me up and returning to pick me up a week later. This decision was to have a significant impact on what followed.
After the four hour drive up to the Stanley Basin I was anxious to get the hike started. Despite the fine weather we had been having it was now overcast and threatening to snow. I was prepared for bad weather, but I really wanted to get my evening camp setup before any heavy snow might start. It is always easier to weather a storm if it starts after your camp is in place. I do not enjoy setting up camp in heavy rain or snow, even though many times I have had no choice in the matter.
It was already mid afternoon, and with the steadily lowering cloud cover it seemed even later. I said my goodbyes to Gretchen, and shouldered the seventy pound pack for my three hour hike up to Sawtooth Lake. Being as late in the season as it was there were no signs of other campers or day hikers in the area. I was alone with my thoughts.
The hike into Sawtooth Lake took me past another smaller lake called Alpine Lake, almost exactly one mile below Sawtooth Lake. The trail below Alpine lake is still low enough that much of it is in the thick lodgepole pine forest that surrounds the higher granite peaks. Once past Alpine lake the trail becomes more interesting. In some places it has been blasted out of solid granite ledges, and walking through such locations is easy enough when the trail is snow free, but when conditions change, hiking them can become challenging.
As I gained elevation the clouds steadily lowered, and shortly before I reached Alpine Lake the first snow started to fall. It was nothing more than a few flurries, but I knew how quickly it could change into a full blown blizzard, so I did not waste time as I hiked. I passed by Alpine Lake with little more than a glance as I steadily gained elevation. The trail changed character too, it was no longer forest floor but was now passing through a world of grey granite. Many places the trail almost vanished in the glacially polished rock.
The trail climbed steeply up from Alpine Lake and then the gradient eased off as it passed through a series of small gullies and depressions a short distance below Sawtooth Lake. In one of the little granite valleys I met the only person I saw that week. He was resting on a boulder as I approached. When we met I saw that he was a very senior backpacker, probably in his mid to late 70s! We talked for a while as I tried to regain my breath. I soon realized that the old man was very well suited to the high country. He had been hiking the Idaho wilderness for many years, and like me, mostly solo.
Even though the snow was increasing steadily, I accepted his invitation to a hot drink. I was impressed by how quickly he was able to kindle a tiny fire, just big enough to heat a pot of dark liquid that he poured out of a water container. In a few minutes the pot was steaming, and he poured us each a cup of the thick liquid. The drink looked like tea, but was a lot stronger. It was about 100 proof, and really was a great treat. We sat and talked for a short while, enjoying the steaming brew.
The weather was closing in rapidly. Small clouds drifted through our tiny valley blocking out the view, and adding to the feeling that I had better get moving. We parted, each having found a kindred spirit in the other, and I headed up, while he headed down the trail. I was getting concerned because I still had a quarter of a mile to go to reach Sawtooth Lake, and then I had to hike up to the far end of the lake, another mile, before I could set up camp. The weather was beginning to get serious, and I knew that it was time I was setting up the tent and getting things stowed for a major blow.
As I approached the lake it was almost invisible in the driven snow. The wind was coming straight down the lake into my face, driving the snow horizontally as it came. I stopped for a few moments to take the weight off my sagging shoulders, and to put on my parka shell to keep out the wind. I wasted no time getting back on the trail and moving toward my evening's camping spot. The hike was no longer one to enjoy, but one to finish as soon as possible.
The wind was coming down from the high peaks in increasingly powerful blasts as the snow steadily increased in intensity. I had not traveled more than a few hundred yards when my world was reduced to the immediate trail in front of me and the rocks to either side. The lake and surrounding country were all lost in the gathering storm. My watch indicated that I had several hours of light remaining, but it seemed as though night was very close. The storm was blocking my visibility in several ways.
After a very unpleasant hike along the lake, I finally arrived at the far end and started looking for a suitable tent site. There was a small stand of pine trees that offered the only protection from the wind, so I set up my tent in a small clearing between downed trees. They had given up their life in some ancient storm, probably not unlike the present one. I hoped that all the standing trees nearby would weather the present storm and not decide to join their ancestors on the ground, or on my tent.
My tent was not one of those modern dome tents, but was an old A-frame model that had seen many years of service. It was well built, but the years had been many, and I was concerned that it might not stand up to the steadily increasing winds. Just getting it set up was a trial. I finally managed to get it set up, and I tied it down and anchored it in every possible way. I moved all my gear inside, being careful to get everything. I knew that anything left out would either be blown away or buried in the rapidly accumulating snow.
That night was one to remember. After getting everything somewhat organized in the tent, I found that I was very thirsty. I got my empty water bottles together and prepared to venture out into the storm. The lake was only 150-200 yards away, but when I opened the tent to go out, I could scarcely see 20 feet! The storm had attained full gale status, and the thought of going out into the roaring whiteness was more than I wanted to risk. Even though I was in a very confined valley, with a lake in the middle, I felt that there was a real risk in trying to get to the lake and then find my way back to the tent. Also, the winds were becoming a threat to the survival of the tent, and I wanted to be there to help brace the tent walls against the blasts. What would occur, should the tent blow apart, was more than I wanted to think about.
I decided to stay in the tent and fire up my stove to melt some of the rapidly collecting snow. I opened the tent and packed a pot full of the ultra dry powder, closing the tent up as soon as possible to keep out the storm. Running the stove inside the tiny tent was not something I like doing, but under the circumstances it was the only option. Even inside the protection of the tent the flame of the stove was very erratic due to the air inside the tent being violently displaced by the wind gusts outside. Also, keeping the stove upright was a problem because the wind constantly blasted under the tent raising the floor and threatening to upset the stove.
I have done a great deal of winter camping in snow shelters, and in temperatures as low as 50 below zero, but the conditions that night were the most dangerous I have experienced. I was terribly thirsty, and when I put the pot of snow on to melt, the very dry powder snow simply sucked up the tiny amount of melted water, and then bridged the bottom of the pot so that the heat couldn't get to it. I kept pushing the mass of snow down to keep from burning the bottom of the pot. It is interesting that you can burn water when melting snow! It is also interesting that liquid water is needed to melt snow under the conditions I faced.
Once I had my snow melted, I wanted to drink it all at once, but I took only a few sips, saving the remainder to use to melt more snow. I kept the stove going for several hours in order to melt enough snow and prepare some hot food. Finally the roar of the little stove was replaced by the roar of the storm as I settled in for the night.
Sleep was not one of my options that night. I stayed awake all night, bracing the tent and listening to the howl of the winds outside. It was interesting, the roar of an incoming blast would start far up the valley, and high in the granite craggs. I could follow its progress down the valley as the roar steadily increased in intensity. Finally, when it seemed that the level of noise couldn't possible increase any further the tent would be struck by a horrendous blast that would try to both lift the tent off the ground, and carry it away down the valley. Then it would pass by and a calm period would ensue while the storm gathered its forces for a new attack.
The night slowly passed into history, and with it the storm. When I opened the tent in the morning the world was a much different place than it had been 24 hours earlier. I have no idea how much snow had fallen, because it was piled into massive drifts in some spots, and in others the bare granite showed through. The air was free of falling snow, but the valley was full of ragged broken pieces of cloud, as if the storm had shattered the cloud cover of the day before. The roar of the wind was gone also, and with it the threat to my survival. Another thing that had gone with the wind were my thoughts of traversing the Sawtooths. Travel was now almost impossible!
I was not unprepared, I had a fine set of snowshoes that I had crafted myself from a white ash tree I had cut down while living in New Hampshire, but they were almost useless under the present conditions of alternating snow and bare rock. Besides, the snow was so dry and light, that even with snowshoes, travel was all but impossible. I decided to relax, make breakfast, fill all my water bottles, and then decide what to do next.
By 9:00 AM all my work was done and I had to decide on my next course of action. I was concerned that another storm would follow on the heels of the last, and I was concerned about the parts of the trail blasted out of vertical ledge. They would become all but impassable should another storm follow the last. After some deep consideration I decided that retreat would be my best option. I decided to work my way down to Alpine Lake, and set up camp there for the night. I could make further decisions after I successfully moved my camp to lower elevation.
I broke camp in improving conditions. The sun was breaking out of the scud every now and then, and there seemed to be no threat of new storm activity for the present. After several hours I was once again shouldering my pack and heading back the way I had come. The agony was about to begin.
I was able to walk a hundred yards or so before I hit the first of the snow drifts. As soon as I started into the snow I knew that the day was going to be a struggle. There was no bottom to the snow. It would not support me, and I was immediately up to my waist in the deep powder. The snowshoes were out of the question because the snow only extended 75-100 feet before it was bare rock again. I would just have to bulldoze my way through at the cost of tremendous physical effort.
I was soon striped down to a tee shirt, as the intense physical effort had sweat streaming off of me. The day dragged on as I slowly worked my way down the trail. What had taken only minutes to traverse the day before, now required hours. Finally I arrived at the far end of the lake, and soon I was back to where I had shared a wonderful drink with the "old man of the mountains." I still had almost a mile to go to reach Alpine Lake, but I now felt that I would make it before dark. I was chagrined by the contrast in the conditions yesterday, compared to the ones today, in this place where I had enjoyed that wonderful drink. There was no time to delay however, the temperature was dropping rapidly, and there was a lot of trail to travel in a rapidly waning day.
Probably the worst part of that two mile journey were the sections of trail that had been blasted out of the granite ledge. The trail was completely gone. The side of the ledge made one smooth snow slope, with the trail buried in the deep snow. I had no choice but to dig my way through. I didn't feel at risk, but it was very evident that to slip off the edge of the trail would cause my wife and daughter some small amount of grief.
The remainder of the afternoon passed in a sweat soaked struggle to clear a path down to the lower lake. I finally staggered in to an almost snow free clearing right next to the little lake. It was pure ecstasy to drop the pack and collapse on a big log lying next to the lake. I still had about an hour of day light, I was in a great camp site, and all was wonderful in my world! Life was once again worth living.
That evening the temperature dropped rapidly. The clouds were gone and the stars shown brightly in the alpine sky. By 8:00 PM I was in my sleeping bag trying to keep warm. An hour later I was climbing out again to put on more clothes, as it was too cold for the bag I had brought. After several more excursions to add clothing my pack was empty. If the temperature continued to plummet I could find myself in a serious situation once again. I looked at the thermometer that I keep on my pack and it showed almost 20 below zero, and it was still dropping! I had no delusions about the Sawtooths. I had seen temperatures approaching 80 below zero in the Stanley Basin during the ten years I had lived in Idaho. I had no choice but to remain, and do my best to keep warm.
The night passed very slowly, with little sleep. I wondered if it was possible that I might go to sleep and freeze to death while I slept. There was a full moon out, and the light passed through the tent, lighting it up almost like day. As I lay there shivering I heard a funny scratching sound on the tent. I rolled over to be able to see the sides of the tent better, and was rewarded with the silhouette of a mouse climbing up the side of my tent. He climbed to the top and then slid down the other side. He then climbed up again on that side, sliding down again on the original side. He continued to enjoy my tent until I got tired of listening to the noise and watching him. I finally slapped the side of the tent and could hear the mouse land some distance away in the forest.
I turned over to try to get some sleep, but about ten minutes later the mouse was back enjoying the recreation to be had on my tent. Once again, I was destined to suffer a night with very little sleep.
I survived the night, but was very happy when the sun delivered its first warming rays to the side of my tent. I climbed out to begin a series of days, passing the time until I could hike out and meet Gretchen. One fortuitous thing was that I had planned to do a circuit, ending up back at Iron Creek Campground where I had started. I had only to pass another five days, and hike out on the firmer consolidated snow.
I started a period of time where I had little to do other than think about my surroundings and enjoy the view. I had fishing gear with me, but by the third day the lake was frozen solid. I did manage to catch a few golden trout before the ice covered the lake for the season. I also established an interesting relationship with the mouse. He followed me everywhere. If I sat down on the log he would curl up next to me and go to sleep. Apparently he had been befriended by previous backpackers. He showed no signs that he was going to chew up my gear, so I enjoyed the strange association for the duration of my time at the lake.
The weather remained clear and cold, but within my limits of survival. On my second day at Alpine Lake an event occurred that stunned me, and probably my friend the mouse too. About 10:30 AM I was sitting on the log near my tent, enjoying the morning sun. The mouse was curled up next to me on the log, apparently asleep. The weather was dead calm, not so much as a breath of wind was moving. I had finished a relaxed breakfast, and was laying back enjoying my surroundings when it happened.
It came instantly, without any warning whatsoever. One moment I was sitting on the log looking out across the frozen lake, and the next I was thunder struck by a tremendous impact on the hill side just above, and to the side, of where I camped. There was no sound leading up to it. It had to be traveling faster than the speed of sound, and the tremendous concussion that resulted from its arrival was evidence of the fact.
I jumped up from the log, with my heart in my throat, but I soon realized that I was in no danger. The actual impact occurred behind a stand of trees which blocked my view. There was a large amount of rockfall and sliding debris after the impact. The actual event probably lasted 3-4 minutes from the time of impact until the last of the debris avalanche came to rest. Even the mouse went below ground after the impact.
I attempted to climb up to the impact site, but the steep mountain side, coupled with the fresh snow, made travel impossible. I spent the rest of the day trying to reach the site but could not manage it.
I had the remainder of my stay at the lake to contemplate the event. Since there was no smoke or fire it was not an aircraft. Also, when I got back I inquired about anything happening in the area I was camping, but nothing was known to have occurred there. After I had exhausted all other possibilities, the only possible cause was a meteor impact.
I decided to go up to Alpine Lake early the next spring to do a search. I did go back to the lake, but was too early, as the snow was still lying deep on the hill side. I returned the following year with somewhat better results. I was able to locate the exact point of impact. There is a shear granite face above the lake, with an impact scar about four feet above the base of the cliff. It looked much like the impact scar a .22 rifle makes when a brick is shot with it, only on a much larger scale. There was a crater, perhaps 4 feet across, with shock rays, or fractures radiating out from its sides. The crater was in the face of a solid granite cliff, so the impact would have to have been substantial to shatter that much granite.
I managed to get over to the scar, no small feat as it was very steep, with a long drop below. I searched for fragments of the meteorite, but found no evidence other than the scar. I think that is reasonable, as anything that came out of that crater would have had sufficient energy to be projected down the scree slope. I did not have the equipment necessary to descend the slope, as ropes would have been necessary, and to date I have not returned with the gear to do it. The exposure is also a factor. The slope is very loose, and would be a high risk exploration at best due to falling rock from above.
There are two possibilities regarding the meteorite. If it was a nickel-iron meteor it will still probably be intact and recoverable somewhere below on the scree slope. Only about 12% of the meteors arriving on Earth are metal, with the remaining being rock. If it was a stony meteor it would have turned to dust in the force of the impact, and no trace will probably ever be found. It is possible that some fragments of a stony meteor could remain, and since they have a relatively high iron content, they could possibly be recovered with the aid of a metal detector.
I have been in touch with geologists at Boise State University about attempting to recover any remains. There is interest, but the fact that it is in a wilderness area causes some unique legal problems. I hope that someday I will be able to recover some fragment of the original object that arrived with such force and destruction that cold October day.
I spent the rest of my time at Alpine lake thinking about the events that had occurred earlier in the hike. When the day came to hike out to the trail-head, the weather was once again threatening snow. However, it held off until sometime after Gretchen and I were safely on our way back to Boise. The lure of possibly recovering that meteorite has tugged at me for almost 10 years now. I am now 50 years old, and the risks associated with repelling a thousand feet down the scree slope are no longer as acceptable as they once were. Perhaps someone will read this who would like to have a shot at it. I would love to go up again and help in locating it, but I think that the meteor may end up sleeping on that hill side for all eternity if it doesn't happen soon.
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