How to Be Stupid in the Mountains

We were in the final days of a 3-week big bike vacation, with stops at Silver Star, Whistler, Squamish, Bellingham, Sandy Ridge and Teton Pass. After two and a half weeks of bike parks, machine built trails, jumps, tables, bridges, log rides, and steep berms, I was riding faster, jumping bigger and feeling the most confident I ever had on a bike. At Sandy Ridge, after three hours of zipping and jumping around the trails I leaned into a switchback on the way back to the truck, slid out and mashed my elbow. Nothing much, but it was bloody and sore. I rinsed it off with water from my hydration pack, slapped on a bandage and didn’t think much more about it.

We camped on the Idaho side of Teton Pass and drove over the top to check out the trails on the Wyoming side. When we took our first run down Jimmy’s Mom, a downhill trail made up of huge gap jumps, gnarly rock gardens and other scary shit, I was grateful for my hurt elbow to take a pass on the Pass trails. I’d been feeling darn good about my riding, but this was serious. I opted out.

I was raised in the mountains, “on a hillside,” as a friend used to say as a way to point to my comfort in the outdoors. My mom sent me out to pick mushrooms at the age of 3 (I don’t know if she sorted the edible from the poisonous or if I knew the difference… something I would not trust myself with these days). I have memories of our dog chasing black bears out of the meadow in front of our cabin, no big deal. At the age of 7 or 8 I went on my first weeklong backpacking trip in the San Juan Mountains. At some point on that trip we were hiking and my stepmom’s hair rose straight into the air from an approaching electric storm. We laughed for a quick second before we registered my dad’s panic and were hustled down the mountain. Camping at the trailhead became part of the drill for hiking big mountains as a teenager. This ensured an early start to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms. I have some history when it comes to being outside.

Three hippy kids in the cabin
Raised on a hillside. We even took our cat to the mountains!

Since I wasn’t up for riding, I had RK drop me at the Mail Cabin trailhead near the top of the pass with the idea that I would run the 10 or so miles back to camp. The trail looked pretty straightforward, but I threw a map in my pack along with some water. It was 80 degrees, I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt. He hiked with me for the first bit where the trail followed a small creek. Red, blue and purple wildflowers were in full bloom. “You have a rain jacket?” he asked. Unbelievably, I had forgotten a rain jacket. We looked at the sky, admired the perfect cloudless blue, and it seemed like an okay risk. “If it starts raining,” I half-joked, “hike up the trail from camp and bring my jacket.” And with a kiss he headed back to the car and I began my run.

I hear that they have re-routed this trail, but in 2012 there was a painfully steep, loose hill a couple of miles in that rewards you at the top with an incredible view of the Tetons. I admired that view and my stomach dropped at the sight of very black, unmistakable thunder clouds. What to do? RK was already headed back to camp and I wasn’t sure I would have cell reception to reach him. And running back the way I came would mean running towards the storm. I figured I had finished the hardest part and the best option was to run, don’t run too fast and don’t stop.

View from Mail Cabin trail, before the storm
View from Mail Cabin trail, before the storm

The trail wound through the pines, I focused on steady breathing and careful footwork, watching for roots and rocks. I wondered if bears come out in the rain…? The trail rolled up and down, thunder rolled in the distance, the sun came and went until it was gone for good and the temperature dropped, raising goosebumps on my arms. Finally, I heard the sound of fat drops falling, hitting branches and the arching leaves of the undergrowth and saw dark brown circles where they landed in the dust.

The trail traverses a ridge, with stunning views of Teton Pass, Oliver Peak, all those Wydaho mountains…  When I allowed myself to look up from the trail I saw wet, dark rocky walls, mountains haloed in heavy, very dark clouds, incredible layers in shades of gray from heather to charcoal. The pines and grasses were glowing wet green and accentuated by the gray. Green and gray always reminding me of a favorite Josef Albers print, “Thaw.” Mostly, though, I ran.

Water streamed off the plants, down my legs, saturated my socks and made my shoes heavy, squishy. The forest opened up ahead of me and I gave myself one quick moment under a tree, just to have a second without rain on my face. My clothes were soaked, my legs flecked with dirt, my skin red with cold, but my core was warm. It got darker. I knew I needed to keep running.

I pulled out the map and it seemed like I was probably on the correct trail, and might be about half way. The rain was sheeting down, heavy drops, along with marble sized balls of hail. Thunder rolled, boomed like it only does in the mountains. My phone rang, RK’s voice barely audible above the hiss of rain wherever he was. He yelled into the phone, “Are you okay? It’s dumping on the pass!” The pass! Why was he on the pass? Not at camp, not heading towards me with my jacket… I had to go, had to run before I lost my heat. Peripherally I thought again of bears, of the signs posted about grizzlies seen on the pass, but it was hypothermia that terrified me. Losing color in my skin, not holding heat in moving limbs, shivering, stumbling… I live by the motto that it rarely helps to freak out, and this is especially true when there is no one around for miles and you are on a ridge, in a lightning storm. I pulled on my pack and kept moving.

Lightning zippered up and down the sky while thunder continued to roll. A flash, one-one-thousand, boom. Another gap in the trees and a stretch of open, bare ridge expanded before me. I have been very close to lightning before, inside a house when a tree in the front yard was hit, slicing off a giant branch in an instant. On this ridge, though, I was in the sky, where the lightning begins. Flash. Boom. No thousands to count. The thunder pounded my body, louder than sound. I was under a pine, bad to be under a tree in a lightning storm, but far worse to be the tallest point on an open ridge. I stopped, I waited. Flash. Pause. Boom. Was it moving away? I felt awfully fond of this tree and its bit of shelter. I imagined the headline in the local paper: “Outdoorsy girl forgets jacket, gets hypothermia in the mountains.” Not a front page story, just another stupid-tourist note somewhere towards the back.

Another flash, almost two seconds… the thunder rattled me but I went, sprinted, across the expanse of the ridge. My heart pounding from effort and fear. Cascades of rain, shoes slurping water, but sure-footed, fast, focused on the trail ahead where it entered the trees. Across, into cover, so wet my skin was weeping, and then soon a right turn in the trail that headed steeply down. Yes! The right trail after all. There were cobbles and 4 inches of water flowing down far faster than my feet could move. A foot slid across a rock, I caught myself, slowed my heart, took careful steps. The rain slowed a bit, the water flowing around my feet lessened. My muscles loosened as the trail switchbacked down the steep hill, I noticed berries, small white blossoms on bushes. And there was a voice, shouting, desperate. My name. My husband. My rain jacket. Strangely he also had a loaf of bread… maybe I would be craving carbs? We jogged a bit as the storm relented. The end of the trail was blocked by a giant of a pine tree and a crew of men were working to clear it. Cars, trucks, campers, dogs. The tent could not be made dry enough, dry clothes not dry enough, wet dog feet, wet skin, wet air. “Into town for dinner?” Anywhere dry and warm.

There are a lot of scars on my elbow, and one of them is from Sandy Ridge. Since then I’ve been in lightning storms, been on trail runs in the rain, mountain biked on Teton Pass, been cold and wet. It is only the occasional glimpse of a white patch on my elbow that reminds me of that time on Mail Cabin trail, when I thought I might die in a lightning storm.

Laurel Hunter

Laurel Hunter

Central Oregon, USA