Yassine and I set off up Herman Creek Trail at around 8am. It was a typical winter day in Northern Oregon, fairly mild, with temps in the mid-40s and a wet, dreary sky. We climbed at a steady yet conversational pace, yapping on about everything from the beauty of our surroundings, food, music, races and a whole lotta running related stuff...We planned to run up to Cedar Swamp Camp, take a short spur trail up to Green Point Mountain and drop down the Nick Eaton Ridge to connect back to our starting point at the car. The loop is a hair over 20 miles and provides for a nice amount of climbing and descending, on some moderately technical single track, while navigating through the largest surviving old growth forest of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock in the Columbia River Gorge. Enveloped in a thick, foggy mist, we marvel at the waterfalls we pass, skip through streams, avoiding the slippery, mossy stepping stones, hopping over fallen trees and branches...time passes quickly and we are soon huffing and puffing up the spur trail to Green Point Mountain. About a mile from the top, the mist turns into a light rain, followed by snow flakes. A white blanket now covers our path and the only sound is the crunch, crunch of our footsteps accompanied by the heaving of our breaths. Our conversation soon resumes though as I spot large cat paw marks in the snow. As we crest the last section of the climb, an arched tree offers a passage way into what seems like a different universe, a land of soul testing cold and hurt.
The wind howls and wips our faces and bare legs cutting into us like knives. Buried in the hood or our 3oz jackets, we scurry over to a small wooden hikers refuge. The wide open windows provide little shelter and we stand dancing around in place assessing the situation. We decide to press on, find our connecting trail and move swiftly to lower elevations out of the snow. After a couple of vain attempts to find the route, we quickly settle for an obvious line straight down the ridge heading north back to the car...or so we think....with every step we sink to our knees in snow, breaking through a hidden layer of ice, tearing at our ankles. Despite the steep downward grade, we progress slowly and the usual thrilling pull of gravity is replaced by high labored steps. A couple miles further and after what seems like an eternity, we emerge in a small clearing, where signs pointing to unknown trails only add to our confusion. At this point, we haven't gone far enough to consider turning back and decide to proceed with our plan of going straight down the mountain in hope that eventually, we will reach the highway. Decisions need to be made quickly as the cold prevents us from stopping for more than a few moments. The trail leads us to a forest road, which raises our spirits, as we feel it must connect to a main road somewhere, somewhere lower, somewhere without snow. Yassine calls out to me and asks if I'm eating something red. Hun? No, I'm not eating anything, that's blood on my ankles from the wrenched ice. Ice that now clings to the hair on my legs, to my shorts and jacket, forms dreadlocks on my head and cakes my beard and eye brows, stinging my face. I try sucking on my fingers to revive some feeling in them. The nails on the index and middle fingers of my left hand are starting to discolor and feel completely numb. I take a quick inventory of my "survival" gear. 12oz of water and a packet of shot blocks. Yassine boasts an extra gel, a couple dates, and the same amount of water. Why aren't we turning back? The thought of retracing our steps sounds way harder and far worse that the prospect that this road offers to lead us out. So we keep relentlessly pushing forward, recklessly expending precious energy with the hope that this will soon end....until we are stopped in our steps. The road forks west, narrows and winds back up into the mountains. If there were an aid station, I would drop, admitting to the weakness of my own mind. I want to lie down in the snow and give up. It sounds so easy, so inviting. I laugh at the thought of sitting here, blowing a whistle, waiting to be rescued. No one knows where we are, no one can hear our cries, no one can save us. It's funny how irrational the mind can be when desperate.
It's time to turn back. And with that simple decision, everything changes. We now know that we have about 15 miles to the car. We know the route home, despite the fact that the snow is erasing our path, we're confident that if we can simply make it back up that ridge to the hut, we'll be safe. Each step has a renewed sense of purpose and strength. I focus my mind on the snow, blank, pure. My fear and anguish have dissolved, I feel a warm, comforting sensation inside. Am I still cold? I see my body moving and everything feels effortless. I become aware of Yassine who is vocalizing his pain more and more. Our pace has slowed considerably and I start to worry that he'll be OK. I try to think of something to give him but I have nothing, save some vain words of encouragement. When we finally reach the hut, he takes his last gel and his glazed stare frightens me a little.
We leave Green Point Mountain, passing under the arched tree but nothing changes, the snow keeps falling. Suddenly, Yassine screams at me, asking for us to stay together. But I'm right here, right in front of you. His vision is blurring, he's loosing his balance, his teeth are chattering uncontrollably. There's nothing we can do but keep moving. The snow gradually turns into a downpour. It is now a straight shot back to the car with no possibilities for making a wrong turn. Yassine calls me again, and with about 4 miles to go, says that the best thing I could do for him would be to run to the car and get the heat going. I feel a great sense of relief partly because I can finally do something to help and also selfishly because the faster I run, the faster this will all end. I know how strong and resilient Yassine is, having seen him dig deep through the pain at his last 100 miler and I don't doubt that he'll be following right behind me. Again I find myself in a weird state, numb, warm inside as I glide down the trail with the sensation of watching myself in motion.
After about 40mins of waiting in the car and just as I am readying myself to get back out there, he comes rolling in and scrambles into the passenger seat. We sit there shivering and chuckling for a moment before setting off to find food and warmth. The mountains are humbling and teach us well.
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