The constant hammering of the sleet against my tarp has given way to a strange and almost unperceivable buffered ticking sound. I lay there motionless…afraid to move from the long sought warmness of whatever contorted position I held when sleep found me the night before. I feel the slow dread of the inevitable de-cocooning of myself from my hammock to face the skin-raping single digit temperatures of the first morning of my second day in the Laurel-Snow wilderness.
I notice the sides of my shelter are incredibly close to my hammock, much closer than they had been the past evening when I had first bedded down. In fact the entire tarp has changed its texture. The night before it was taught and smooth but now it is pruned and slack like a wrinkled garbage bag. I dig my right arm out from beneath my swaddling and knock on the tarp a few times. I knew it had snowed and iced quite a bit during the night but I had no idea just how much winter damnation had been dumped upon my humble lodging. My rapping on the tarp was crackly and sharp and I knew I was now encased in what amounted to an ice wigwam. The percussion disengages part of the ice casing and it slides down to the ground with a strangely familiar “lightsaber-ish” swishing sound.
Today will be a good day.
Feet on the ground. Boots tied. Coffee imminent. I NEED coffee. This has passed well beyond the confines of a simple want.
“Contacts first” I think and I want to get the lenses in my eyes before I dirty my hands with my morning trail coffee ritual. I begin groping around in the stash bag that hangs on the side of my hammock. I feel all the gadgets and possibles that I had stuffed inside the night before but no contact lens case. Did it fall out of the bag? No. In the hammock? No. Anywhere else for shits sake? No. The cold is already beginning to seep into my gloveless hands so I decide to cut my losses and dig out my spare pair of contacts. This solves one problem yet creates another. Where will I stow my contacts the following night? True, my ever paranoid self has brought along a spare for my spare contacts just in case so I have extras. Still, the thought of burning through six pairs of contacts doesn’t set well with me. In a stroke of MacGuyver inventiveness I source a rubber band and save the new contact lens container. I lash the two containers together with the rubber band and make it tight enough to contain the contact solution. Crisis of the ocular nature has successfully been avoided.
Now that I can see relatively well I set myself to making strong drink to combat the emerging tremors. It will be my first cup of snow coffee. I scoop up a generous portion of snow in my coffee bowl and light the pocket rocket. I’m worried my butane canister may be too cold to render the fuel aerosol even though I kept the can in the sleeping bag to avoid the issue. Happily the blue flame surges forth from the burner and coffee will soon be on the way.
Breakfast is a couple of frozen protein bars and a few pieces of nearly frozen jerky. The chow brings life back into my legs and the coffee cup has finally warmed my hands. I head down to the river and fill my Camelbak and guesstimate the amount of purification tablets to add. I make one last stop at camp to pack two lenses along with some food for the trail and grab my camera and tripod. While it’s on my mind I rig up a tensioner stick for my tarp guylines to counteract the weight of the ice on top. The guyline stake was frozen to the ground beneath the ice so this was my response.
The snow and ice has transitioned to a nice and relaxing freezing fucking rain just in time for me to strike out on the trail. The goal for the day is to explore the reaches of the trail with mission priority being the 85 foot Laurel Falls.
I pack up and latch down my rain gear. I readjust the improvised rain cover on my camera and set my feet to the path which is now covered in a five inches of snow. The snow is quickly developing an additional crust of ice from the rain and each step releases a hugely satisfying crunch.
I head northeast towards Buzzard Point and Snow Falls. As I said before in part two, Snow Falls of course is a spot I will never reach on this trip but I do make Buzzard’s Point. I move double time along the trail which is admittedly hard to discern with all the snow especially once I hit the boulder fields.
I cross the river at the 150 foot steel bridge which is nicely sheeted in a layer of fresh ice making the crossing very interesting.
From here on the trail is beautifully wrapped in its winter splendor as it winds through passes and around caves.
Overall the hike was unremarkable until I reach the destination…except for taking a wrong turn down the Dimholt Road.
The rain continues for the remainder of that day. When I finally reach the overlook at Buzzards Point I am surprisingly impressed by the sheer magnitude of the sight in front of me.
I am standing on a large and empty expanse of snow covered rock that shoots out from the surrounding pine trees. The wind is an absolute bastard out on the exposed cliff. It’s causing the rain to whip and lash at me from every direction and at some point my tripod almost blows over. I have an incredible view of nearly the entire 360 degrees around the area. As wonderful as the feeling is of being surrounded by this epicness I remember I have to move along. I make a few quick exposures and then pack it up and I’m back on the trail.
The route doubles back and I find myself following my own footprints back down the trail and across the bridge and finally back to my camp before this time heading northeast towards Laurel Falls. It’s really raining now. It’s coming down so hard in fact that I’m worried about just how waterproof my self-made raincovers actually are.
After negotiating a few tight squeezes along the trail…
I begin to hear the sound of the falls off in the distance and I know I am getting close. It’s around 3pm when I finally set eyes on the now nearly frozen Laurel Falls.
It is an alien world for me at least who has never witnessed a waterfall during a hard winter. There is still some water flowing but the falls are encased in an enormous shell of ice that looks like a giant hornet’s nest. The base of the falls have built themselves up into two monstrous ice flows each separated by a row of impressively large boulders. As soon as I see this I begin to form possible exposures in my head and then do what I need to do to make them happen. I shoot around the perimeter of the falls and save the shots from the ice flows which are immediately in front of the terminus of the base for last. It was at this time something interesting happens. An extremely audible and nearly seismic “boom” suddenly echos across the gulf of the falls. This stops me in my tracks and confounds my senses. I’m not sure if it was a piece of ice falling against the rocks or one of these cryoseisms that we’ve been hearing so much about as of late. Turns out it was neither. As time will tell and my next words will reveal, the huge booming cracking sound was an Volkswagen sized chunk of ice preparing to break free of it’s shackles at the top of the falls. It is approximately fifteen feet long by ten feet wide by my rough estimation and in a few minutes it will come crashing down no more than twenty feet from where I will be standing out on the ice flow.
After making my way out to the very front of the falls I make a regrettable mistake. I lose focus on what I am there to do which is to make photographs of the waterfall. For about a minute this goal shifts to “lets make epic selfies in front of the waterfall.” I admit this is pathologically lame but nonetheless the truth of the situation. If I had not stopped to take a few quick snaps of myself I do believe I could have captured the disembarking of the ice and it’s subsequent plummet to the bottom of the basin.
So, as I am crouched on the ice and clicking away with my trusty pocket camera I glance over my left shoulder to be sure that the falls, my tripod and camera, as well as myself will all be included in the shot. It was at this decisive moment the waterfallberg(the best I could come up with) decided enough was enough. It’s difficult for me to verbalize the next few seconds of time in a way that doesn’t cheat the combination of emotions I felt in those moments. Fear, shock, excitement, awe, insignificant. Those are the descriptors but I can’t tell you in what order nor what degree each were felt. In true Michael Bay movie action form I see that big piece of ice break free with terrifying crushing audibility. It’s so large in scale that it truly does appear to fall in apparent slow motion. The sound and sight was surreal. As it falls to the base the initial booming noise tapers off in an echo the way you imagine an incoming mortar round. Then it hits. It lands with an inconceivable force and for an instant I feel dwarfed by the enormity of the entire happening. I see a wave of water leap forth from the caldera and rush out onto the ice. This is when I decide to vacate the location. I am sure the water or the impact will shatter the obviously fragile ice on which I am standing and take along with it my fragile person.
With my tripod and camera already in hand I somehow have the presence of mind to reach down and scoop up my rain cover and lens cloth before I hastily excuse myself from the danger. I retreat back another twenty feet or so and behind the line of boulders to the second ice flow. This is still not a smart or stable spot to be and it offers a less impressive composure of the falls. The falling ice chunk has jarred me into the full reality of the danger so I figure it is a fine compromise in order to protect myself and my gear from anymore car sized ice bombs. I make a few more exposures from this vantage point and then pack it up. I take a few strides until my left leg breaks through the ice and snow and I sink up to my hip. I wedge myself out and find the trail back to camp. Daylight is still the same indiscernible washed-out tone of grey but the time on my watch tells me that sunset will be in three hours. I want to leave myself plenty of time to make it back to camp and settle in for my second night.
I make it back to my Hammocktorium to unload and make sure my camera and lenses are as rid of the water from the shoot as best as they can be. At this point my legs and feet are completely soaked from the rain and the mishaps along the trail. I assign myself the task of barricading my sleeping quarters from snow that absolutely blasted in underneath my tarp the night before. I accomplish this with a little inspiration from my dwarven brethren of Tolkien lore and construct a rock wall at the place where the weather stole its way in so unmercifully.
Satisfied with my enhanced fortifications I decide its time for some food and then another solid nights sleep.
The nights meal is eaten in pleasantly warmer temperatures which I welcome with open spoon. Red beans and rice cooked in my beloved jerky broth and sopped with tortillas. Seeing as my food wasn’t freezing in the pot I inhaled it less quickly and with much more enthusiasm. Stashing the pots under the hammock unceremoniously I remove my contacts and realize I am too lazy to refill my water bottle so I bed down slightly thirsty but altogether content. I’ll drift off much as I did the first night only slightly warmer and with the confidence that I have at least two strong photographs on my memory card if I can manage to make it out the next morning. In my own mind the risky trip into Laurel-Snow has just became a cautiously labeled success and I drift off to sleep like a drunk monkey in a banana farm.
Morning comes and I am again hard pressed to dislodge myself from my nest above the snow. The stone wall I built did it’s job and reduced the wind so there was much less snow drift beneath me to contend with as I lace on my still waterlogged boots. I have to pack up for the hike out. The small items are the first to be packed followed by the sleeping bag and blankets. Lastly, I take down my hammock and tarp and stuff them away. I leave my now empty plastic food bag out so I can gather any left behind trace of my presence and pack it out with me as well. I make one last pass around camp and then I sling on my pack for the trek back to the waiting world where I’m sure two or maybe three people are certain I have frozen to death.
I make it back to my old friend…that nearly demolished and still ice encrusted fifty foot steel bridge that I avoided on the march in two days prior.
As sociopathic as it sounds my main reason for not crossing it the first time was because I hadn’t yet gotten any of the photographs I had came for and didn’t want to risk breaking myself nor my camera. Now I have those photographs and I know that even if I fall the memory card will almost certainly survive. I begin the slow yet deliberate traverse of the broken down steel passage. The damage is almost exclusively at the opposite end of the bridge so the first forty feet are relatively easy. Those last ten feet were where I earned my pay…if I was actually getting paid for this.
The grace and balance I exhibited while still wearing full pack and carrying my tripod in one hand was a triumph of physical mastery especially of a man comprised of my great girth. I make short work of the obstacle and before I know it I am bounding down the home stretch toward the trail head.
I make a few quick stops when the opportunity presented itself for a photo or two and even make a brief investigation of the Richland Mine entrance.
The last bit of the trail is pleasant and it gets warmer the lower I go in elevation. After I reach the trail head there is still a mile or so of gravel road between me and my truck. The gate remains locked due to weather just as it was when I hiked in so I encounter no people until I reach the highway. I stow my pack and strip off a layer of shirts to make myself ready for the familiar four hour burn back west. I strike out with the contentment that one feels after winning a race or surviving a marriage. I had dove beard first into some of the worst conditions mother nature has thus far thrown my way. I’m not foolish enough to call the endurance a victory. Yet I will be as bold to call the outcome a tie. My time in the Laurel-Snow was a glorious battle between Moose and nature when both mighty forces refused to back down.
With the sound of the Hank’s well rested engine thundering I smile and move at an easy speed down the interstate. The road was long and I didn’t have any reason to hurry.
Originally posted in February of 2015
Photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find me on some distant trail making photographs or at my computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Pick up a copy of my new photo book of wild pony portraits, Faces of Grayson.