September 22, 2021
The Risk to Live
Words & Photos by Robin "Little Spoon" Standish
Help! His pleading scream silenced and awoke everything in me.
I had met him days earlier, drying out his gear beside the trail. He was a Middle Eastern man with dark, heavy almond-shaped eyes who told stories of his youth and how he fled his war-torn country under gunfire. He spoke fondly of scaling mountains such as Denali and traversing mountain ranges in the Himalayas but then took pause and expressed quiet uncertainty about his current undertaking. I gazed at his limp, soaked gear and ruined maps, the consequence of unsuccessfully using a slippery fallen tree to cross over violent, frothy rapids. I wondered what he was doing out here; what any of us were doing out here. It’s written as freedom, I suppose. To experience an exponentially greater sense of our aliveness, though at a cost I’m not sure any of us had been fully prepared to deal with. I gave him some extra dinners of mine having lost my appetite to over-exertion and the altitude, and he trailed behind our small convoy that had slowly grown as incidents similar to his would continue to happen.
Help! This time from farther away but still painfully terrified.
The shock of cold water had instantly paralyzed all but his vocal cords. From the opposite bank, my eyes followed him, scared to look, but scared to look away. His exhausted body and a pack absurdly too big for him were held afloat by his inflated air mattress. He was but a rag doll to the lapping tongue of a profoundly swollen creek.
Creek. That’s what our maps said it should be, but the heavy snowfall and the pregnant spring melt in the Sierras decided otherwise. The once-upon-a-time streams carved out wide beds and saturated the fields. Their depths far surpassed our heads and roared downstream like madwomen who had been locked away for years. Their steady, anguished howls could be heard for miles, reverberating against the valley walls. Somehow, these unsettling sounds became white noise that would sing me to sleep each night.
The first crossing, days earlier, inspired adventure and would forever be cataloged under “type-2 fun.” With it being early in the season, there weren’t many of us in the mountains, and our vulnerabilities had encouraged us to travel closely if for nothing else then to have witnesses. We peeled away our filthy layers and sealed them and our few precious items into the bear canister that was required for this section: sleep clothes, electronics, socks, a lighter, and paper maps for those of us that carried them just in case. All we could be was hopeful that we would have something dry to put on but welcomed the adversity of an alternative outcome. The second crossing we met with experience as we bypassed any deliberation and silently blew up our sleep pads. With our packs unbuckled at the waist, if only to feign a little extra security, we waded out into the frigid waters summoning every drop of adrenaline-laced strength. The third crossing was met with annoyance and exhaustion, kicking ourselves desperately across the water, feeling the undercurrent bite at our ankles and pull us into the eddies that funneled around like small tornados. The novelty of the experience had run dry.
Help! He hoarsely cried over and over. Those still on the other side chased alongside him like shadow people dodging in and out of the first rays of morning that hung on frosted spider webs stretched between stiff pine needles. And for the first time, as I watched the scene play out and felt the acidic tang of anxiety bubble in my gut, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Is that what they sounded like?”
A few months earlier while I was thru hiking southbound on the Appalachian Trail, two friends of mine crash-landed in the Cook Inlet outside of Anchorage, Alaska and drowned. I found out a week after the fact through social media, just after making it through The Whites–a big accomplishment for a first time thru-hiker. I simultaneously felt my heart grow and shatter a thousand times. If people had neglected to tell me, I deliberated, then perhaps it was because they were not mine to grieve and thus my sadness was decidedly unjustified. Maybe it is reasonable to say that the loss of them was not a catastrophe to me like it was to others, the catastrophe I felt lay in the loss of life itself and the guilt of my aliveness in stark contrast to their lack thereof. The part that felt particularly troubling was that they survived the crash landing of the Supercub, but rescue failed to come soon enough, and they were sucked deeply into the treacherous mud flats by an unforgiving tide.
Three months later and the morning before making it to the Southern Terminus, I woke to gentle text: Casey’s missing. It doesn’t look good. It was a wet and cold December in Georgia, but I felt cloaked by numbness as I stumbled down the slippery path chasing intermittent signals that chimed happily with new details. His story was just one of many in recent years, a victim to the alarmingly warm winters in Alaska that have created notoriously unsafe conditions for people from communities that rely on frozen rivers to travel and subsist.
When I returned home, friends and family still reeling from the previous tragedy were actively trying to recover his body from under the ice. They hoped he was in the silty depths tangled in the graveyard of snags that line the bottom of the Kuskokwim River. He was not there but in the edge around the open hole that had swallowed him was what looked like a handhold. I blankly wondered how long he might have held on there before being dragged under the ice. For months afterward, those thoughts consumed my morbid curiosity. I would lose my breath trying to imagine their final moments and the helplessness and dread they must have felt at their inevitable demise. Did they know that they didn’t stand a chance?
They pulled him from the water when it whipped him within reach. His body drenched, defeated, terrified, gasping. What are we doing out here? I asked myself again. What is this worth? What if he had been alone? Our footsteps crunched against the snowy bank that mirrored the serpentine flexuosity of the river, regular in its irregularity, as we walked up steam looking for a safer crossing. In my head, I could still hear the plea for help, except it echoed with the voices of my friends whose desperation was never heard. I tried to distract myself with bush-whacking, quietly enjoying the spider-webs that angry, frozen rose bushes had drawn across my legs as though the brief, but sharp pain could somehow ease the suffering of those long gone.
Eventually, we found a narrow spot where the water was glassy and only chest high and one by one, with rattling teeth and short gasps our group became whole again. From here the trail would go up to a pass and likely back down to one or many crossings whose volume was moody and unpredictable. After dressing and rearranging the contents of our wet, sun-stained packs, we began to ascend the next climb, gradually drifting apart to recover a sense of independence and self-sufficiency.
I set up camp that evening away from the giddy camp stove dinner chatter unwilling to expose the soft underbelly of my vulnerabilities, to put words to something for which I had none. It is difficult enough to accept comfort from familiar hands and voices, and harder still to receive it from strangers. I laid on my Therm-a-rest, damp from a day’s use as a flotation device, and watched night fall, silent and powerful beyond all effort. Peach colored clouds swirled across the sky, swooping around the snowy peaks like sinuous threads of cotton candy, and the stars began to spread like glitter against a darkening backdrop. The world was brilliantly alive, and I closed my eyes against the thundering water that gushed throughout the mountains feeling the undercurrent of a faraway tragedy that I needed to make peace with. Instead of pushing out at it, trying to understand it, I let it speak to me.
The death of my friends in and of itself was not what pained me, but instead the fact that I imagined it as violent and that they were helplessly alone. My thoughts traced the outline of these scenes with microscopic intensity, hoping that eventually, I would grow impatient and bored with the memory; that it would dissolve and be as if it never happened. But in truth, it was not their story I was hoping would disappear but rather the awareness of my fragility that it forced me to hold like broken glass against my skin. That is the scary part of dying, I think, that it might be uncomfortable and sudden and entirely unpredictable. We convince ourselves we are immune to the inescapable truths we’re all born with. We stand beside the howling waters, staring at our distorted reflections, and remark at how close we can get to it without becoming it. We choose to ignore that it is a translucent, penetrable membrane that separates us from the monster that looms large, terrible, and always close.
Traveling through the High Sierras that summer buried within me a terror that still prickles my skin at the sound of rushing water. My heartbeat quickens, my breath shortens, and it reminds me that I am alive. It reminds me to press my body solidly into life as evidence that I lived hard, passionately and mostly well. It reminds me to hold tightly to the fleeting moments, because to be alive means that I am already drowning.
Our Triple Crowner friend Robin Standish is nothing if not committed. Her dedication to life on the trail takes many forms: stacked up thru hikes, beautiful photographs of wild places and in this case, a well-thought-out, soulful investigation of the sidecar realities that going ultralight carries—out there, in actual practice. Give her a follow on Instagram (@walking_thru) to see what she gets into next.