The White-Out

More than anything else, it was intimidating. Not to start walking again, but simply the thought of start walking. One week off trail, drinking and partying, completely and masochistically undermining my physical shape that I had spend 2,5 months and 3000 km to built up. Could I, seriously, start walking a marathon a day again? Across giant mountain ridges, the highest peak in mainland US with a loaded backpack, far far away from civilization? Did I have any other legitimate options? The thought of quitting was even more painful, so the math was simple = walk on and fail if needed, but at least fail with pride. Fail trying, not not trying.

This is The Sierras. The highest section of the trail. The coldest, the most isolated, the most oxygen-deprived, the most weather-risky, the steepest and the heaviest loaded part of the entire trail. A government-approved 20 liter bear-canister for my food is squeezed inside my tiny 45 liter backpack, a legal requirement as bears are so prevalent and habituated that they will attack and steal you food. As if bear-attacks wasn’t enough, the risk of loosing your food with 200km to civilization is another added risk. The 500 bucks fine for not carrying the bear-canister is another risk in my universe. No bear-spray, it’s too heavy, just my knowledge of how to scare and fight off the greedy ursine terrorists if they dare front me. And its October, the snow can hit anytime, though I’ve agreed with myself that it won’t. Think again.

From the beginning, it seemed wrong. The long endless blue-sky days were gone and my first day entering the Sierras was windy. Strong winds with mean gusts. Then dark clouds drifted across the sky like a scene from a poor horror flick. The trail climbs and climbs and soon I break the mythical 10.000 feet altitude marker. My tent is knocked over in the wind, but still, the sky releases no precipitation. So far so good, but I’ve just started and I have 380 miles and 3 weeks to go, everything seems possibly. Day 2 gets rough and the rain starts. Cold, horizontal rain at exposed ridges at 3000+ meters altitude. Somehow, it felt good, “bring it on, I’ll fuckin’ shoulder it, now or never” I’m thinking. It pays off and the rain stops as I descend below 3000m. I managed to keep warm. Set camp, start a fire to keep warm, but a drizzly rain starts again. Guess I go to bed early.

I wake in the middle of the night and the drippy rain-sound have stopped. Perfect, it was just a quick high-altitude mountain-shower. I leave the comfy shelter of my tent to take a wee and are shocked. The rain has turned to snow. I try not to and simply go to sleep in the illusion that the soft white stuff is not happening. I wake in the morning and my tent is covered in 10 cm of snow. Creeping out of the tent, I address my hiker-friend Loohoo. He sums it up with a one-liner: “Shit just got real…”.

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We have 90km of backtracking to escape it and 150km ahead of us to next exit-point, so there is not much to do other than to push on. Essentially, it’s not a problem yet, but if it keeps snowing the trail will soon disappear and without a GPS we are, literally, lost in the wilderness. 2,5 months and 3000km of hiking to beat the snow seems to have failed. “A marathon a day keeps the snow away” had been the saying, and it didn’t work. So walk on, mentally, physically. Optimistically we do, and the morning is a perfectly quiet, white, lonely landscape. Beautiful beyond belief. The snowfall has slowed and I am enjoying the magical scenery, in the illusion that the worst has passed. The trail is still visible and we are progressing, slowly but steadily. A 3400 meter pass is ahead of us and we cross it in the afternoon as the snow picks up and visibility drops to 20m. “We gotta get off this ridge before nightfall” we enthusiastically agree and fight our way across it “down” to a 2900m valley before we set camp, brush off the snow from some dead trees and calm ourselves in the heat from our campfire. What a day! “Tomorrow, the sun will reign” we agree, halfway sending a prayer into the unknown system of the weather-gamble.

It did. It was blue skies and the sun rose out of the clouded valleys, illuminating a scenery that looked like a painting. We are ecstatic, this will be the most mind-blowing hiking day of all times. We climb towards the next 3500m pass, but surprisingly the clouds climb out of the valley with us. Everything turns black and white and you could see, could smell, could hear the trouble. Wind moves in. Fog moves in. Horizontal snow is “falling”. A white-out, as they call it, 20m visibility and nothing but white everywhere you look: snow, fog, wind and white. Disorientation at 3500m altitude. The trail zig-zags in all directions, so our map and compass is next-to-useless. “The deer knows this terrain, let’s follow the animal-tracks” Loohoo says. He’s got a point, cause bears, deers and cats are not stupid, they use the hiking-trails just like we do. It is, after all, the easiest way to travel across the wilderness. So we are guided by the “randomness” of nature, which I by now vest a divine belief in. Rightfully so, it turns out.

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Moving across the endless white terrain we make it across miles after miles of snow and at some point the fog starts to lift. I recognize certain topographical features and compare it with the map and compass. Yup, the deer were right, were are, literally, on track. Later it starts to rain and tough it is freezing cold, it is good sign: the 2-day snowstorm is lifting. Camp at a lake and quickly hide away in my tent and sleeping bag, somewhat dry.

Next morning it happened: The sun rose from a calm, completely blue sky and not a wind is moving. No clouds, no nothing. By noon, Loohoo and I are both laughing while drying out our sleeping bags as the sun is celebrating its victory over the passing low-front.

In hindsight it was perfect: just the correct amount of high-altitude snowstorm to create a stunning scenery while making you uncomfortably scared and remember the Sierras with a vigorous respect. But that’s life: problems are always so much nicer after they are dealt with and as they become history and great memories.

Thanks dear deer, you lead the way!

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