Many of you observe more on a walk to the mailbox than I do along the Pacific Crest Trail, suspended eight feet above the ground on two thin boards that keep me from sinking. If you were there today, your writings might bear much more than you see here. But you were not there. Nobody had been on that trail for at least three days. See in the pictures below how the trail is barely discernible, having only a slight trough to show that somebody had traveled on skis. The picture at the left shows my tracks today. I know they skied and used poles because the imprints of their poles are also barely seen as small regular dips in the foot of snow over them. And it was only one person, otherwise the pole imprints would be closer together. This person might have been on snow shoes, not skis, you say. No, because snow shoes leave big footprints that would appear as big dips, not the linear railroad tracks left by skis.
These were the initial things I thought about while starting from Willammette Pass on a hiker’s highway as long as Interstate Five. I could follow it all the way back to Pasadena with enough time and stamina. I’d continue south atop of the Cascades as I did today, then along the crest of the Sierras as I did last summer, then topping the San Gabriels, and home.
I did not worry about getting lost because my tracks are as clear as a railroad in the desert, and the light snowfall today will not cover them completely. Also, the trail is marked with blazes on trees and small blue tags that are mostly intervisible. Someone had the foresight to put the markers at least ten feet above the ground. Walking on snow this deep is a bit like walking on a frozen lake, I’d fall through and get nowhere without something to spread my weight. The skis are doing that like little bridges, bending under my feet, springing back when I lift a foot.
My destination is Rosary Lake, where I expect to find an old woman with a string of beads; each bead reminds her of a prayer. But about three miles in, and almost to the lake I fell over sideways in the snow and lay there puzzled as to how it could happen. An easy stretch of trail, no obstacle in view. I rolled myself out from thick snow, pulled myself up on a tree and sat on my skis. I found that my boot had come apart, and its thick rubber sole that attaches to the ski was severed from the rest of the boot (see picture). Without the support of a well attached boot, the ski had moved of its own accord, not allowing me to steer it, thus the fall.
I sat there in deep snow for some time considering the ramifications of this mishap. I was three miles in and would turn back without reaching Rosary Lake; that much was clear. I could remove the ski and perhaps make it back on one ski, though I had never skied on one ski. I could use the skiless foot for some control. But the boot was no longer a shield against the snow and walking on a boot in this condition would push snow in against my foot. It would begin getting cold, and over three miles, frostbite was inevitable. I carry some chemical heating pads in my daypack in case of emergency; they produce heat for about five hours, long enough to hobble back. I could put three of them inside my sock and outside my inner sock. But then it seemed that with snow pressing in, their heat would melt the snow and perhaps cause more cold against my foot than if I didn’t use them.
The first idea that comes to mind in a dangerous situation has seldom worked for me. I have to stew about a problem like this before something practical comes to mind. I guess if a bear were chasing me it might be different, but in this case, I told myself to stew.
Let’s try skiing on it just as it is, I decided. The trail has been uphill most of the way to here, it will be downhill going back. Maybe I can slide along, maintaining control with the poles and the good boot, allowing the broken boot to stay flat against the top of the ski, keeping snow away from my foot. Controlling the descent with only one good boot would not be easy, but maybe I could do it. Then before getting up to try this solution, I stopped myself and stewed some more.
There is one more thing I can do to make the downhill trip safer. My skis are the old wooden kind, and have one advantage over modern skis. Modern plastic skis gain traction for uphill with little ridges on the bottom that dig into the snow. The ridges are shaped for minimal impedance to downhill sliding. It’s a tradeoff with modern skis between uphill mobility and downhill speed, and the tradeoff is fixed at the factory. Wood skis do not have ridges, but depend on wax for uphill traction. Waxes come in different stiffnesses, and choosing a wax depends on the temperature of the snow—too soft a wax and the skis build up snow going downhill and sliding comes to a stop—too hard a wax and you have no traction going uphill. So I thought that instead of using a normal wax for this snow temperature, why not use a softer wax, instead? Snow will build up on the skis and allow downhill travel like a hiker, one step at a time. It would be slower, but safer, and compensate for having only one ski with which to control my descent. So I got out my packet of waxes and used the cork block to smooth a coat of soft wax on both skis.
And so it is that you read this. Otherwise, well—Safe living is for the young.
Those bristles poking through the snow are not grass, but tops of four-foot to eight-foot trees. Notice the slight dip in the trail where somebody skied several days ago, before a foot or two of new snow. A blue tag on a tree marks the trail.
The forest is very quiet today, no birdsong, no scurry of squirrel, only day-old tracks of deer. So I took this picture of my only companion.