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Make that Gnarly Hike Yours


Make that Gnarly Hike Yours

by a Weekend Warrior Outdoorswoman

“When not ideal, call it good.” - Aphorism of the Weekend Warrior Outdoors Folk

There are times in life when you have to stop and take it all in - that awesome snow-capped peak and oh! A verdant valley m i l e s below. As you take stock of how you are feeling about the awesomeness, as you let the wonder wash over you, you might also ask yourself:

“What the HELL have I gotten myself into?”

That was me at about 3:30 p.m. staring down the scree slope of Polaris Pass on the second day of backpacking the 36-mile Wallowa River Loop. I may as well have been Indiana Jones standing in a cobra pit.

My husband, Ben, went first. Sometimes purposefully causing mini avalanches to secure footing and prevent me from sliding off the narrow scree “trail”. I am sure that Ben would have rather scree skied down but I would not have followed him. At one point, I had to face the slope and side-step, side-step along. I did not like turning my backpack downhill and I started to cry. Yep! I cried like a 8-year old who is afraid of the dark.

As soon as my former-backpack-leader and father-of-three realized I was in distress, Ben started taking off his backpack. “Give me your pack,” he said.

I would not.

Yes. I was crying at 9395 feet with a 5.1 mile descent (over 2200 feet) ahead of me (where the East Fork meets the West Fork), but I was not going to give up or make my partner carry my pack!

On the waaaayyy down, I had a profound thought: mistakes are made in the backcountry - some fatal, some not so fatal.

Here were our three (not so fatal) mistakes on Day 2 of our 5-Day adventure:

Mistake #1

We left camp too late. By the end of our hardest day we were pushing our physical limits and the limits of daylight. Starting earlier would not have made the physical exertion less stressful, but more daylight might have made us less nervous. Being thirsty, jittery and nervous is not a way to Crush It on the trail. 

Mistake #2

Second-guessing the Green Trails Map. When the map says there are 5.1 miles between the red dots and lots and lots of squiggly lines -- believe it. Once we realized that the map was indeed correct it turned our 6-mile day into an 11-mile day. Very different days. 

Mistake #3

Not enough water. I could have and should have filled my 3 liter bladder full. Instead I chose not to fill the bladder to save weight. We also should have filled up on water whenever we had the chance rather than wait for the two stream crossings (at the end of the switchbacks). The most torturous part was the sound of cold, crystal clear water rushing down the hill on either side of us, but the path to the water was not so inviting. Ben made it to one of the falls and there was much rejoicing when he radioed over the walkie-talkie that he had water!


We obviously lived through the ordeal that was Day 2. But, who wants to merely live through something? Weekend Warriors want to Crush It, even though, by all that is sane and round, we have no business attempting to do so.

Ben has been backpacking since Boy Scouts up and down the Eastern seaboard, Philmont, NM, The Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yosemite, and all over the Pacific Northwest, specifically Oregon, where he has called home for more than 20 years. These days, one could call Ben an experienced outdoorsman and gearhead who is also a Weekend Warrior Outdoorsman. How did he go from avid outdoorsman - backcountry hiker, snowboarder and mountaineer - to WWO? He had children and then got divorced.

And, me?

Seven years ago, my idea of a hike was walking from Union Square to 115th and Broadway in New York City. Back then climbing up six flights of stairs with my heavy hybrid bicycle to my tiny apartment in Columbia Heights was the closest I came to gaining elevation. When I started backpacking two years ago at the age of 41, I had a plan - ease into it and go with a good group of much more experienced outdoors people. Two years later, after five two-night backpacks around Oregon and Washington, I felt I was ready for a five-day, four-night adventure.

I made it but here is my plan to Crush It next time!

#1 Pack even lighter.

Ben and I each have a terrific ultra lightweight backpack, but he realized that we could have shaved off ounces (and collectively pounds) which saves us in the long run.

#2 Pack a dromedary.

Filling up our Sawyer from lilting springs and snow melt takes a long-ass time! A gravity water filter dromedary saves a lot of time and filters MUCH faster.

#3 Learn to fall down scree.

My husband is a backcountry snowboarder and generally has no problem with skidding down steep slopes of granite (“scree skiing” he calls it). I could use a lesson or two on controlled falling. Aikido, anyone?

#4 Pack more electrolyte chews.

In the absence of crystal clear water, the PROBAR energy chews provided enough sugar, caffeine and electrolytes to boost you during those really tough dehydration slogs. Just make sure you actually want to eat them. “Just eat them,” Ben says. 

#5 Repeat. Fill water whenever possible.

Unless you have good intel to the contrary, assume in the late summer that the smaller creek-crossings on the map are dry and fill up from that cloudy, silty snowmelt drip-drip-dripping to avoid the anguish of seeing a beautiful alpine waterfall just out of reach (literally) while your lips grow evermore chapped, and while your partner grows evermore...chapped.

Frankly, after this multi-night maiden-backpack, I am seriously rethinking my dream of thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

Although, it did feel mighty good when a fellow hiker asked where we had been and his reaction to ‘Polaris Pass’ was, “Oh, really! We heard from a 12-year old boy that was a gnarly hike.”

Weekend Warrior Outdoors Folk we’re not setting records or performing on a super-human level but after this trip, I say to all who love a challenge: make that gnarly hike your bitch! 

Reluctantly we left Glacier Lake on our fourth day. Photo by Ben Debney.

Reluctantly we left Glacier Lake on our fourth day. Photo by Ben Debney.