Monday, February 14, 2011

Sheer Stupidity or How My Arms and Back Came To Be So Sore From a Hike

The week-end began with a hike at one of the parks along the Potomac River.  The day was expected to be relatively warm, but it was overcast and felt cooler than it was. The trail ran through tall, decidous trees that are bare now for winter. In many places, particularly at the beginning, the width of the trail was covered in ice, but we found good footing trudging through the vegetation alongside the trail. It was easy walking and a good day to be outdoors. After an hour or so, we wound our way down to the Potomac and paused at this scenic spot.

Then we moved on, following the trail along the river gorge. From my mountain-bike-racing days, I tend to hyper-focus on the trail in front of me. All I pay attention to is the condition and terrain of the trail in front of my, gauging my physical abilities. I'll cycle through studying the path right in front of me, to a view about 5 feet in front, and then further ahead. But any irrelevant information, such as what's going on outside the periphery of the trail itself -- I don't even notice. Which was perfectly appropriate for mountain-bike-racing, since we were always on pre-planned courses. But it's not appropriate for hiking, particularly on new trails.

The trail, alongside the rocky edge, became more narrow and evolved into single-track. We were ever so slightly gaining elevation. We came to an area of small boulders to clamber over. I love rock scrambling! I was focused on finding the right spot for my foot  on the increasingly narrow, yet ice-covered path, often using my hands to somewhat crawl up and along the trail.

Glancing ahead to see how far we still needed to go, I stopped and looked around. That's when I noticed we had crawled/hiked our way onto a rocky, icy ledge no more than three-feet wide. On one side was the hillside. On the other side .... nothing. Off the edge was just a plunge down into the Potomac about 50-75 feet below us.

The other hikers didn't seem to be bothered about it, but I thought it was a particularly stupid place to be. One wrong step and ... ...  While letting this all soak in to my brain, the hikers ahead had scouted out the trail ahead, came back, and said we couldn't continue further along as the trail up ahead was "treacherous". And this part of the trail wasn't???

The only option was to go back. I realized I couldn't physically turn around; I was going to have to crawl/slide down. Trying to move backward, I couldn't get secure footing on the trail. Even in spots that weren't icy, the earth was frozen, making moving downhill slippery.

That's when the fear kicked in. It wasn't my irrational, panic-attack-type fear of heights. This was totally rational, totally logical fear of death. I remembered the banner at one park along this river that states "Since such-and-such a date, X number of people have died from falling into the Potomac. Stay away from the edge." I remember reading articles in the Washington Post each year on people "playing on the rocks" who fell in and died. I remember thinking they were effin' idiots for being so stupid. Now, it could be me. And I thought: is this how people end up having to be rescued?

I made my way down. Slowly. With my fingers, I dug out a spot on the hillside to make a hand grip. Then I'd slide down on my butt a few inches. Make another handhold. Slide. And again. And again. All the time, holding on for dear life.

Once we all got off that ledge, we quit the trail and bushwhacked back to safer terrain. We took another side trail. When we saw it was heading to the edge again, we opted out. Found another trail that safely led down to a view at the river. The rest of the hike back was as pleasant as the beginning. Our 3.5 miles easy winter trek took us 3.5 hours.

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