Wednesday, January 21, 2015

An Autopsy of Decisions

You're welcome, Mom.

I bent down to test a seemingly dry spot with my hand. Nope, icy. Tried another one. Nope, that one's icy too. I turned around and scooted on my butt down the slickrock incline. Justin was at the bottom, having taken a dry route. We scrambled on all fours up another icy slope. The view at that top was disheartening. Ahead was a few hundred yards of exposure. Steep sideslope exposure, ending at a cliff with a sheer vertical drop. It was time to turn around.

 Photo - Justin Swanson

Earlier in the day, Justin and I had made the decision to take the Peekaboo Trail, which crosses overland to Salt Creek, rather than an 4x4 road. The views were jaw-dropping. The day was bright and sunny and we enjoyed views of the snow-covered La Sal mountains in the distance. But the higher we climbed and the further we trekked, the slipperier it got. It hadn't rained recently, that much was certain. But the previous night had been a dewy one, and a thick layer of frost covered north-facing and shady sections of slickrock.

The first few encounters were pretty mild. A couple of slippery steps here and there, but nothing to be concerned about. We dropped down into Squaw Canyon, and then climbed out. Dropped into Lost Canyon, and then climbed out. By this point, we had traveled more than four miles, and less than a mile separated us from Salt Creek Canyon, which we would follow upstream. That's when things started to get dicey. We had climbed considerably - we were at around 6,000 feet. And although the sun was bright and cheerful, in the dregs of January it's so far south in the sky that half the landscape lay in shadows, even during midday. There were a couple spots where we had to deviate from the trail, shimmying up a crack to get better traction the slippery rock. But there was no real danger, other than that of a bruised ego and a sore tailbone, were one of us to slip and fall.

Then we came to the ledge. Several hundred yards long with that steep exposure on the left side. But there might be a way that we could navigate in the vegitation on the uphill side of the ledge. I crept forward cautiously to investigate. We could probably swing from tree to tr...

This is crazy. There's no way we can navigate this safely. One misstep will literally lead to death. Yes, we've hiked four miles and don't want to hike four miles back to the car, and then five miles from a different trailhead, just to get to a place we're within shouting distance of. Yes, the views look great and it'd make for a great story. Yes, we've come this far and have managed to do it. But this is crazy.

Turning around is hard. It sucked to return the way we came with our tails tucked between our legs. It sucked to have to make a shorter hike in Salt Creek Canyon. It sucked to not see some of the cool Indian petroglyphs in the upper part of the canyon. But it was the right decision, and it was the wise decision.

The hike back was somber. I reflected on our decision, and how we were blessed with the wisdom and experience to know when to turn back. We also reflected on other people's decisions. Terrible or destructive choices don't come in a moment of temporary insanity. They come as a result of the escalation of bravado and the escalation of commitment. We made it through the last one, we'll make it through this one. We've made it this far, we can't turn around now. We made the right choice. But in a situation where the right choice is the hard choice, suddenly our human limitations show through.

The trip itself was terrific. The weather was beautiful, the scenery was jaw-dropping and the company was great. It's amazing to live in a place where we can backpack year-round. But what I'll take away from this trip is honesty. Honesty to admit that, despite my extensive experience, there are some things that are just going to beat me. Honesty to admit that I don't always get it right. Honesty to admit that it COULD happen to me. 

Thank you, Lord.

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