August 07, 2003

The Fine Edge

An interesting day yesterday, as Wife, her friend, and I made the hike from the Brighton trailhead to Sunset Peak, elevation roughly 10,700 feet. You can see the peak in the snap below (click the pics for larger versions), which was taken from Catherine Pass, which sits at 10,240 feet. (Noted for the record: 70-year-old Father made the trip to Lake Catherine, just below the pass, then tromped out another three miles or so exploring while we went to the summit. We should all be so fit at 60, let alone 70.)

In one way the hike was nondescript, save the grandeur of the wild around us. We made our way from the Brighton parking lot, past Dog Lake and Lake Mary, past Lake Martha and Lake Catherine, and up to the pass. (You can see pics from an earlier hike here.) From the pass we hiked the ridgeline to the summit, where we enjoyed a 360 degree panorama that defies easy description. The clouds broke, sunshine streamed down on the windy summit, and we took in vistas from Idaho to Colorado to the Aquarius Plateau to the Wasatch Range’s Mount Superior. We were very much on top of the world.

After enjoying the view, a sandwich, and the rush of adrenaline we made our way down the mountain, enjoying vistas and meadows of wildflowers that we’d missed on the way up. We linked up with Father, reached the trailhead without incident, and enjoyed a beer and lunch at the very special Silver Fork Lodge (dining review to follow).

Again, in one way, the hike was nondescript. In another, however, it was quite unique. We had heard on the news that since Saturday a hiker had been missing in Little Cottonwood Canyon’s Grizzly Gulch, which is on the opposite side of the Catherine Pass hike we’d just made … if we’d continued along the trail from the pass rather than headed to the summit, we’d have dropped into Grizzly Gulch and Little Cottonwood.

The hiker’s name was Micah Clark. He had hiked into Grizzly Gulch with photography equipment and a GPS, and it was clear to me that he must have been headed to Catherine Pass, the ridgeline upon which the Great Western Trail lies, and Sunset Peak. It is the photographer’s destination.

Evidence of his absence was immediate. We could see the search aircraft circling, and each hiker on the trail knew the story and talked of being just a bit more aware and observant than usual. And we were being observant when, just off the summit during our descent, Wife and I heard three short blows of a hiker’s emergency whistle. I went off-trail, working my way along the talus, first to the ridgeline, and then back along a short cliff line running East-West maybe 30 feet below the trail. As I did I looked for spots that would attract the photographer’s eye, vistas that would be right with the light of mid- or late-day. Many were along small promontories below the talus, points where a misstep would lead to a direct fall of 10 to 30 feet to a steep and rocky slope.

I called and whistled along the way, working my way along the talus, to the ridge, and back along the cliff line twice. Giving up, I rejoined Wife and her friend at the trail, and they explained that other hikers had told them of a rescue party working in the basin below us, and it would have been their whistle that I heard.

It was a strange thing, going into the Catherine cirque with the airplanes passing above us, knowing that their passengers, the other hikers on the mountain, and we were all tied by some thin thread to a shared and somber activity: We were all looking. Each of us, at some time, remembered or talked of Beck Weathers, or Aron Ralston, or some other individual who survived in the wild. And we all recognized, knowing that days had passed, that we were at least partly resigned to the likely outcome.

Yesterday afternoon we learned that they found Micah’s body about 1:00 P.M., about one mile from his truck at the trailhead, which would put his location at Catherine’s Pass and Sunset Peak. It’s very possible that the whistles I heard were the alert of the party, calling the others to note that they had found his camera and tripod. I suppose I won’t know.

Yesterday, at times, on the ridgeline trail, we were very close to the edge. While the trail itself is not dangerous, a slip could have resulted in easy tragedy. Somewhere along the way, either on the trail or just off it, Micah Clark slipped. He came prepared, walked where we walked, traced the same trails others had traced, and slipped where others did not.

For me there was a message in yesterday’s experience … not one of melodrama, but one of a simple reminder: Each day we walk the ridgeline, the margin between meadow and 800-foot exposure, the margin between fortune and misfortune. It is a fine edge.

Artists and authors have cast this message with greater justice than can I, but the message remains, and it was as tangible for me yesterday as it was 12 years ago when I absent-mindedly stepped off the curve and into Salt Lake City traffic, as it was the morning of September 11th, 2001, when I had the good fortune board a commercial flight that arrived safely at its destination. Each day we walk the fine edge. People slip. We should hold those whom we cherish close to our heart.

Posted by Avocare at August 7, 2003 10:08 AM | TrackBack

Alan and Wife - Glad you are having a grand time in Utah, and hope you have a safe journey back home. This particular blog entry struck a chord with me, reminding me of my recent trip into the Wenatchee Forest here in Washington. Going into the wilderness for me is frequently a humbling experience. The mountains, the forest, and the the unpredictable weather can make any trip, be it day hike or a multi-day trek, a challenge. It was just me and the dog on this particular trip, a simple overnighter into the Glacier Peak Wilderness. The trail we took, known as the Cady Ridge loop, was well worn and largely easy to follow. We headed out of the meadow where we had spent the night, and continued West along the trail as it meandered over a ridge. The trail made a hard turn North, and clung to the ridgeline overlooking a lush valley. The path narrowed as it tried to follow a course out toward nearby Granite Peak. I looked down to my left and studied the hard slope away from the path and into the valley. It wasn't a direct drop, but easily a 70 degree angled tumble over boulders and loose rock into the valley, some 4,000 feet below (no doubt it would be a rather unpleasent experience). I watched my pooch scoot along the trail in front of me. He did a little hop and moved on. The path at this point was a foot wide at most, and cut across the angle of the ridge. I took another step forward and my left leg shot out from under me. I was down on one knee before I knew it, clutching at the viney growth around me. I quickly managed to scramble back on my feet, but my heart was racing a mile a minute.

Although I was completely fine, it was sobering experience as I realized how quickly things can change. One slip, probably not unlike the one that Micah may have had. Although I recovered, and sadly, he did not.

Posted by: colin at August 7, 2003 01:56 PM

Alan, a wonderful post and the point is well taken. Our days are not promised to us so we need to try to enjoy each one as much as possible.

Posted by: Nate at August 12, 2003 01:18 PM

Alan: I happened across your story "The Fine Edge" quite by accident. It is beautifully written and reduced me to tears as I read about Micah. It brought back all the tender feelings of those days up on the mountain as we waited, hoped, and prayed for him. I am Micah's mother. I wanted you to know that he was a good man with a kind and generous heart. His love of the outdoors has given me a new appreciation for nature, as I now try to see things through his eyes. We miss him so very much. Thank you for your account of that day. May I ask...who are you and what is Avocare?

Posted by: Renita at September 17, 2003 06:20 PM
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