Things Come in Threes, Part II

The Injuries of ‘09

Most people think of hiking as, essentially, walking. The slightly deadpan name of Bryceson’s book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, “A Walk in the Woods” captures this in a spot-on understatement. We hikers gear up: elaborately engineered backpacks, seasonally specific footwear, hands-free hydration systems, etc, all to undertake an activity that can be summed up, quite simply, as walking. How the hell did I do that badly enough to get hurt, not once, but enough times in a year to warrant a list?

In all fairness, there are many people for whom hiking is walking in the woods. I used to be one of them, and back then, I don’t think there was much chance of my getting hurt. Or at least not by doing anything any more inherently risky than, say, getting the mail or crossing the street (although I do know two people who were killed crossing the street, for what it’s worth). Approximately one year ago, as I struggled up a steep rise in loose deep snow on a day that saw 3 degrees F as a high temperature, on a bushwack slog to bag two uninteresting and utterly viewless peaks whose summits are so densely covered in pricker bushes a warm weather attempt would have required the same outfit or else any exposed skin would have been thoroughly shredded – I realized that I had crossed the line. For me, hiking was no longer walking in the woods.

Why and how this happened is the meat of the next book – the memoir that chronicles my journey through my first list: the Catskill 35. For now, suffice it to say that for me hiking has become a thrill-seeking risky business in which I push myself emotionally and physically sometimes past my own limits, exploring just what this forty-something year-old five-foot-tall mom is capable of. This has meant long days (6 peaks in one day is the current record), solo days, cold days, wet days, and glorious days whose photographs don’t come close to capturing the incredible synergy of the moment.

But being out there at this level has carried a set of steep lessons (sorry- couldn’t resist). The mountains teach and I jog alongside, panting, straining to keep up with the information that comes flying at me in the form of beech whips in the eye (wear eye protection when off trail) or slippery rocks on a November stream-crossing (sprout wings, move fast, and don’t look at Flammeus). The first of the injuries of 2009 was detailed in Part I of this post – acquiring the first stages of hypothermia on Plateau, due to spending hours outdoors in the elements, in winter, soaking wet. As a mom, I have to laugh a laugh of disbelief – would I allow my child to spend 6 or so hours outside in February if she were drenched? Duh. The other two injuries are about equally foolishly self-inflicted.

On March 22, 2009, Flammeus and I set off to hike Sugarloaf. We’d recently been up Indian Head and Twin, its neighbors to the east, and Plateau, it’s neighbor to the west. Sugarloaf called to me. Since completing the Catskill 35, I was now working my way through every single trail on the map – forwards and backwards, I originally suggested, but Flammeus shot that one down. So, despite missing winter proper for this hike (needed to do it on 3/21 to count as a winter peak), off we went and what a lovely day. We met some great people on the summit viewspot that warned us of the tricky descent on the west side of the mountain: very icy and difficult, they said. No problem, we thought. We have crampons. We’ve done the notorious escarpment side of Blackhead in deep winter. We’ll be fine.

They weren’t kidding. The Devil’s Path is a hairy affair in ice-free conditions: steep as hell, killer ledges, gorgeous, dramatic, kick-ass sections that mean working up a nice sweat on a hot summer day. March is still deep winter in the Cats, and there is still ice in the cloves in June. March 22 may be officially spring but on the west side of Sugarloaf it was like making our way down a frozen waterfall for at least half a mile. Tricky and slow going for us; really rough on the poor dogs. We made it through most of the really steep sections without incident, when we encountered a group of about a dozen hikers. One of the group members was hiking with a pitbull that he shouted out to us was “not safe” near other dogs. My canine daughters are well-behaved and friendly 60 pound Belgian shepherd dogs. The rest of the group was scattered around this section of trail, and to get past them I needed to traverse a section of trail covered in a sheet of ice about 20 long. I can’t hold my dogs as I cross the ice; I tell them to leave the vicious pitbull alone. Miraculously they obey, I make it across the ice and around or past a few people on the narrow rocky icy trail. I am almost clear, past the people and the drama when I catch the front prong of my left crampon in the ankle strap of the right one. I went down like a sack of potatoes, all 120 pounds (plus pack and gear) accelerating to slam onto my right knee.

I’m 3.5 miles from the car, with plenty more elevation to shed and more vertical ice to navigate, and I am pretty sure I’ve cracked my patella. I make it to a rock to sit down and scoop up enough snow to pack my knee. Flammeus turns a little pale seeing this: I never want to sit down on hikes. I never choose to rest. I have been known to eat my lunch while moving. I sat and rested, knee packed in snow, watching this group create and manage crisis after crisis (their leader had taken off without them and several members were panicked and immobilized). Flammeus and I offered to help some of the members who were turning around and heading back down, but they declined. After 15 minutes or so, I staggered up and decided that if I sat any longer, we’d be trying to reach the car in darkness and that combined with my injury was just no good. I found that cursing loudly and often helped the pain, and we did stop to apply snowpacks a couple more times. Bone bruise was the ultimate diagnosis. I was damn lucky.

Injury number 3 was also precipitated by a fall, also on a tough day, but something much worse than ice was to blame: wet leaves. In November 2009, Flammeus and I struck out on the Devil’s Path (yes, that trail again. There are other trails in the Catskills; I’ll probably get hurt on them too one day.) aiming to head up the back side of Overlook, bushwack up Plattekill, and grab Indian Head on the way back to make it a loop.

The lowlands lay covered in a thick blanket of fog. We reached a viewpoint overlooking the Hudson Valley and marveled – it was like looking out the window of an airplane, looking down at the top of the clouds. The edges particularly fascinated me and about 100 photographs were snapped. Then, after enjoying a chat with a young Polish hiker and his cranky pooch, we chugged up Plattekill with me leading/navigating. We ate lunch looking south at a sea of clouds with mountaintop islands sticking up all over the place. It was fairy tale Middle Earth-esque and a few hundred more photos were taken, many of them by me after climbing a tree to get a better view.

Then I had a brilliant idea: rather than double back the way we came, let’s bushwack off the east face, straight down to intersect with the trail we had been on a mile or so back. All those topo lines really close together on the map mean trouble, and I knew it. A truly frightening descent for Flammeus and me, and even harder for the dogs. Physically taxing as we clambered down cliff after cliff, and mentally exhausting as we watched for trail markers knowing what it would mean if we missed them, and nerve-wracking as the fog lapped at the edge of the escarpment, threatening to climb up the hillside and swallow us.

We did hit the trail, and after high fives and hollers of glee, we set off for Indian Head by way of the Devil’s Kitchen. Wet leaves covering a bluestone slab sticking up a couple of feet about the trail, coupled with the sloppiness of relief… I couldn’t say why I went down when and where I did, or why those particular wet leaves tripped me but indeed they did. My right foot flew out to the right, down the slick side of the slab, and the bottom of my pelvis hit that rock with 120 plus pounds of rapid acceleration. A week later I was getting x-rays for a possible broken pubic bone. Another week after that my doctor was recommending surgery for the golfball sized hematoma that had formed. Yup. Heather hurt her hoo-hoo hiking. Only me.

Those are the only injuries of ’09 that rate, the only ones that bump up above the normative bangs, scratches, cuts, bruises and general discomfort that is simply part of the game. Do I do things differently now – perhaps try to prevent future mishaps of this ilk? Well sure – both falls happened after moments of high stress. I can remember to stay stressed (I mean focused) longer – say, til I’m actually in the hot tub. As far as staying wet and getting cold, Flammeus was delighted to hear that my solution involves removing the wet clothes and replacing them with dry. Strip to the skin, carry lots of extra shirts, and a plastic bag for the sodden ones. Everyone’s happy.

And just to make sure things really do come in threes, part III of this series, entitled Triple Skunked, is on its way.

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