This past weekend was supposed to be the culmination of my training program for Kilimanjaro — two days each of hiking 5,000 feet of elevation with a full pack. The plan was to hike Mount Adams and Mount Madison on Saturday, camp and then go for the biggest mountain in the northeast, Mount Washington, on Sunday – three peaks in two days to strengthen my legs and mind and give me more confidence in myself.
Instead, I bagged 0 peaks, was humbled and my confidence took a huge hit.
So what happened?
The start of the hike was great. Not as beautiful at Mt. Haystack’s trail (is anything?) but green and pretty nonetheless.
The trail was tough but I made great time and was feeling pretty awesome. Halfway up, I took a break to have some snacks and gave myself a little pat on the back. I was feeling real good about myself (despite the immense amount I was sweating).
It was right after this break that i started making decisions I’d later regret.
After the break I came out into an opening at the bottom of kings ravine. The ravine is like a three-sided bowl and I’d walked up the lowest side. The three high sides of the bowl rise up around you and the feeling and views are just awesome. The feeling being surround by that kind of elevation is so great and after losing the trail a few times during some rock jumping moves, I snapped some pictures.
At this point I’d hiked about 1800 ft in 2.8 miles, which is a pretty easy grade. The next 1.3 miles, though, had an elevation increase of 2000 ft. After that, another .5 miles and 600 ft would get me to the top of Mt. Adams.
Now, I understood 2000 ft in 1.3 miles was significant but i didn’t really understand how significant until I actually started up the trail.
At first, I thought, wow this is a lot of rock scrambling! And rock hopping! And my large pack isn’t really helping! But I can do this!
However, the higher up I went, the steeper it seemed to get and the smaller the rocks got under my feet. The smaller rocks meant it was easier to slip as the rocks slid underneath me. It also meant the rocks were easier to dislodge, sending them flying down the ravine into either other hikers or other rocks.
As I went up and up, I kept thinking to myself that I wouldn’t feel very safe hiking down the Kings Ravine trail. I didn’t quite feel super safe hiking up it either. But, Instead of turning around (I was sure things were get easier and turning around meant if have to go all the way back to the beginning and start over), I pushed through. With every step, though, the way down and the way up became more treacherous.
I started to feel trapped, no longer wanting to go up or down. The wind kicked up and clouds started rolling in — which the weather report the day before had predicted wouldn’t happen until much later in the afternoon/evening. My fast pace slowed to a crawl as the ravine steepened and I had to carefully pick my way up. Every time I thought I’d reached the last pitch of the scramble, there was more, with smaller rocks and fewer sturdy foot holds.
After some point hiking, I lost it. Maybe it was when a particularly chilly wind swept by. Or when I couldn’t tell if I’d just heard thunder or a plane. Or when I crested what I thought was the worst of the rock scramble only to find the path ahead much worse.
Either way, I started to break down. I’m prone to panic and anxiety and a panic attack — my first in months — began. I left my medication in the car so I was left to try and breath deep as my throat closed and chest tightened.
The next hour felt like a nightmare. I’m still not sure how much danger I was actually in – people I met that night agreed that the Kings ravine was a scary and dangerous hike, yet online there’s many blog posts and forum posts of people describing the hike as “a little airy” but super fun. What I do know is the trail was outside, way outside, of my comfort zone.
And, I knew I was in at least a somewhat precarious situation. I was hiking alone, I had no cell service in the bowl, I had left my anxiety medication in the car, I was at times frozen and at other times rushed by panic, clouds and possible rain and lightning were seeming more possible and would make my travel much more dangerous, and going down was now not an option since it was very steep and would take much longer to go down. Making myself move upwards, convincing myself to slow down, to trust myself, to breathe — it took all I had.
What ended up being about 200 feet from the top, I saw a hiking group ahead of me that was also scrambling over the rock field. I screamed out to them over the wind and asked them to wait for me because I was scared. I felt like I needed someone to know I was there, to be waiting for me, to be aware if something happened to me. They waited, and after scrambling up the last set of rocks, I was at the ridge, out of the ravine and off the rocky slope.
The Appalachian mountain club has a series of huts stationed all around the white mountains along the Appalachian trail and one of those huts was just over the ridge. I walked in and, still crying, asked for a room. They had two beds left. I thanked them and went to the bunk bed and slept for hours, exhausted and shaken from the hike, from how easy it would have been for something to happen, for me to disappear on that hike, for no one to have known for hours that something was wrong.
That night, I was surrounded by hikers at dinner who sympathized with me, who told their own horror stories — when they’d bit off more than they could chew or overestimated themselves. I had great conversations with people who I may never meet again, and using a telescope at the hut I got to see Venus and the rings of Saturn.
The next morning, after breakfast and well-wishes from my fellow hikers, I hiked down a different, safer path and back to my car. But even when on flat ground , it took days for the panic levels in my body to subside.
With a few days perspective it’s clear the mistakes I made:
#1 – I didn’t turn back when I noticed that I thought going down king ravine would be dangerous/scary. It’s generally a good idea to be willing to go up when you hike down and hike down what you’re hiking up. That way you don’t get trapped in a situation that you feel unsafe in, like I did. Is told my friends this countless times but when it came down to it, I ignored my better instincts and thought I could handle it.
#2 – I packed oodles of water instead of a tent, extra food, more clothes: I thought that packing my bag full of water to add weight was a great idea, but in doing so I ignored the rules of hiking in the high country — brings the things you’ll need to survive if Hingis go wrong. Luckily I had my sleeping bag for that night and there was a hut with food and water and shelter at the top because all my extra food and clothes were sitting pretty in my car 4.5 miles away.
#3 – I didn’t do enough research. Friends had told me their hike up Mt. Adams featured a rock field that was very difficult and very tough. The map I downloaded from the hiking website though, looked really pretty and easy with its happy greens and easy yellow lines to follow. I didn’t do enough to make sure the specific trail I was going to go on would be safe, and had I done just a little more searching I would have known what I was in for and been able to adjust my plans before I even started hiking that day.
All in all, I was overconfident. In this case, I came out okay — I luckily didn’t slip. It luckily didn’t rain. And luckily there was a hut.
But I don’t want to be lucky. I want to be smart!
And you can rest assured that these lessons are learned and I will be doing everything I can to never have to learn them again.