In his mis-spent youth. WC did a lot of backpacking, including all of the Oregon Skyline Trail (now part of the Pacific Crest Scenic Trail) and a chunk of the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking is a wonderful way to clear your head. Mostly.
Riley Creek lies in Denali National Park (nee Mt. McKinley National Park), running from the core of the eastern end of the Inner Range through a long arc to the park entrance. Back in high school. WC cross-country skied the creek, coming out to Cantwell. But WC had never hiked it in summer. It seemed like it might be fun. Originally, the hike was to be with a buddy, but the buddy backed out, so WC decided to do it solo. Sure, the gear is a little heavier, and if you get in trouble you are really in trouble, but WC had nearly a thousand miles of solo backpacking under his boots. Which inspired confidence. Overconfidence.
Riley Creek, upstream of Triple Lakes Basin, runs fast and furious through a narrow, steep-walled canyon. The creek isn’t impossible to wade, just very fast and very cold. The creek careens between the steep rock walls, forcing a hiker to repeatedly – four or five times a mile – to ford the creek. Fording a glacier-fed stream is painful, involving emerging and waiting in agony for the ice-water induced leg cramps to go away. After a while, it gets old.
So WC decided to go up over a creek-washed rock face finally, rather than freeze his feet and legs one more time. It looked do-able from below, so WC, external frame backpack and all, scrambled up through the dense alder and onto the rock face, working his way across the face of the cliff, 40-50 feet above the rock-filled creek. The going was pretty easy at first, with decent ledges and cracks. About two-thirds of the way across, though, the face was smooth as a baby’s butt. WC tried a higher line, angling upwards towards a ledge. But the ledge broke off at first touch, leaving WC with his left foot on a teeny, tiny ledge, two hands grasping cracks and his right foot on air. The pitiful little ledge couldn’t hold both feet, so WC just dangled there for a time.
After a while, and some unsuccessful shifting about, WC ran out of ideas.
After a little while longer, WC ran out of finger strength, and careened over backwards, falling 50 – 60 feet into the creek.
WC has no memory of the fall. The next thing WC remembers is the world spinning slowly around, a really, really bad headache, and numb hands and feet. After spinning around a while longer, WC realized he was floating on his back, draped over his backpack, in ice cold water. The world was spinning because he was in an eddy. He had a headache because the back of his head had hit the frame of his pack. And his arms and legs were numb because they were hanging in a glacier-fed stream.
It’s surprisingly hard to get out of that kind of situation, especially when your brain is working at one quarter of normal speed. Eventually, WC washed up into shallow enough water that the pack grounded. WC was able to undo the waist belt and wiggle out of the shoulder straps. The world was still spinning pretty good, but WC was able to drag his pack out of the creek and then he collapsed on the bank. After a half an hour or so, WC decided this would be an ideal place to camp for the night, dug out his soggy sleeping bag, wrapped himself in it and the soggy tent, and pretty much passed out.
WC woke around 3 AM. His brain was mostly working again. As WC tried to heat water for a cup of coffee and breakfast, WC looked at the creek and where he had fallen. In at least a mile of stream course, there was exactly one pool large enough to fall into as WC had, without hitting a rock and breaking something. And that was where WC had landed. Huh.
The welds on one side of the external packframe had broken in the fall. So WC had to cache part of his gear and walk out, then walk back in to get the rest of it. And then walk back out yet again. A full day each way. WC forded Riley Creek each and every time it washed against the canyon wall. And never complained.
Sometimes dumb luck will get you out of your stupid mistakes. But never count on it. At least not twice.