Gold Panning.. or not.
Let’s go back to 2015 for a minute. More specifically to a snowy mountain in Vermont in late April of 2015 — to the summit — with snow and cold and wind. Did I mention the waist deep snow?
Alas, I am already ahead of myself, and at this point you must also be wondering what business gold panning and snowy mountains have together in the same story. Well, read along and you will find out they have no business being together at all. I’ll start at the beginning a few month earlier to lay the foundation here.
Rolling back to… maybe February, our dear friend Kyle begins researching gold panning and its history; along with its archeological, sociological and probably a few other -logical impacts on the world. If you knew Kyle, none of this would be a surprise. At any given moment Kyle can provide a quip that perfectly and eloquently ties the current conversation with his background as an archeologist; it’s quite impressive really. But I digress — the point is that Kyle now wants to go gold panning and has tied in the idea of a gold panning trip with good old fashion hiking and camping. With no other need to sell us on the idea of a camping trip, Brian, Byron and I are in. We have a solid plan to go gold panning in April, once the snow has melted of course.
April 20, 2015 Brian and I are packing for tomorrow’s trip and invite Byron over to do the same. We are all excitedly anticipating the first camping trip of the year and want to make sure we have the right gear with for cold hike and night on a mountainside. It’s raining when Byron arrives on his motorcycle outfitted with a backpack wrapped in trash bags and a pair of Rockport dress shoes that he plans on wearing for the hike tomorrow. To be fair we have no insight to the actual hiking conditions yet, but I figured waterproof would be a good idea and handed over a pair of Bean boots for him to wear instead. We really wanted to make sure we were prepared as possible for the assumed conditions.
We’re off! Kyle picks us up in the morning for a pre-adventure adventure, and we slowly make our way up to the mountain. Fast-forward to arriving in Shrewsbury, VT, we make a pit stop at a small mom and pop shop to get some last minute supplies, i.e. boxed wine. We make casual conversation with the proprietor of the shop and learn that that roads going up to the mountain have not yet opened for the season as they are covered with snow and ice pack. Not to worry though, there is a parking lot at the very bottom where we can leave our car — now there is just a little extra hiking to enjoy. We are also warned that the trails might still be a little wet and probably muddy; still we prepped for this last night, everyone has waterproof boots, we won’t be held back from our adventure!
Once on the trail, getting there was quite easy — off to a good start, we realize the warning of the shop was valid. Pretty much everything was wet and their were a lot of puddles, but again; we were prepared!
Ten minutes in, it turns out that Kyle’s 7 year old waterproof hiking boots were not so waterproof anymore. Also the all cotton everything he was wearing was starting to weigh down and get cold. He insists he isn’t bothered and we move on.
Some time passes and we’re all having a good time, we have food, we’re moving at a good pace, and we even come to the first shelter the mountain has to offer: it was pristine! The shelter was dry, clean, and even had a broom. There was a neat little fire pit directly outside the 3-walled log structure, and we all imagined the glorious fire we would sit by at the top of the mountain after our hike and maybe even some evening gold panning. Reinvigorated to find the mountain top shelter, courtesy of Kyle’s internet-found-printed-map, hike off triumphantly towards the summit.
As we peak over some smaller hills and trees clear here and there, we can see a mountain peak off in the distance. A debate starts about whether or not the far off peak is our destination, or if we are simply too far under our current peak to see the top. It becomes an ongoing joke more than anything. That far off peak couldn’t be where we need to get to, it doesn’t even look like we’d get there before dark!
It was the far peak. The whole time. The really really, hilariously, far away one. We realize this about the time that the picture from the beginning of this post was taken. Go look a it again, it makes sense now. What you don’t see in that picture is the snow that was at the bottom of the ravine and the steep decline on the other side that cause most of us to slip and fall most of the way down. At this point we realize 2 things. The occasional patches of snow are becoming deeper and more persistent and we are too far in to go back.
We push forward as it begins to snow/rain — if you’re from New England you will recognize this as the beloved wintery mix — until a point were the foliage is no longer visible and we are trudging through ankle deep snow. This seems like a good time for an update on team moral: Byron — pleasant but skeptical of our progress, begins sharing cliff bars to bring up moral, Brian — determined to move forward, there is no giving up, Kyle — trying to keep spirits up, very optimistic that we will reach shelter soon, completely soaked, me — still dry, also motivated to move forward but less optimistic.
A short way into the now consistent snow and rain Brian is leading the group forward when suddenly he sinks deep into the snow; well actually it was a river under the snow, and his boot is filled with freezing cold water. Brian’s mood update: furious, disappointed, more determined than ever to reach the summit and shelter as quickly as possible.
Given that we can not see where rivers and streams are, we begin traversing the terrain as closely to trees and higher ground as possible. I try to lead as I have the highest and seemingly most waterproof boots, but Brian pulls ahead and begins putting distance between himself and the group. Byron is concerned and we try to get Brian to stay with the group. Byron looks at me and warns —
We have to stick together, if one of us gets separated.. this is how people die.
Without really saying anything more, I knew Brian wouldn’t slow down and Kyle couldn’t speed up after being exposed to the cold and wet for so long. Byron held back and motivated Kyle forward while I scurried to catch up with Brian. At least this way none of us were alone.
The pitch of the mountain seemed to increase steadily while the snow grew deeper and deeper. We hit a point where the snow was hip to waist deep and the only way forward was using your arm to push yourself above the snow, hope that your step would hold, and inevitably sink all the way into the snow again. This went on for several hours. Brian and I took turns leading just to break a path in the snow. As the follower, you were essentially taking a break relative to the two roles, so this was by default also the cheerleader position. Each step we just had to tell the other that we were going get there soon, there couldn’t be much more of the mountain left.
Byron and Kyle were no longer in sight or in range to hear their progress. We began to see moose tracks, and the steep mountain side seemed to flatten out here and there as the trees thinned. This was just false hope, at the top of each pitch it just became steep and the trees grew thick once more. Moral was low. Really low. It almost became funny how little we believed in the shelter promised at the top of this mountain that so far had been anything but what was promised. The overwhelming feeling of defeat began the death threats.. not from the mountain or the weather, but from Brian:
If there is no shelter at the top of this mountain, I am going to kill Kyle.
Obviously Kyle wasn’t fully to blame, none of us had properly done our research. But at the time, that seemed totally reasonable. The trees finally started to shorten and a path broke off to the right that was narrow but full of possibility. The trees fell away on the right as we ascended above the tree line below, and we stuck to the snowy wall on the left as we approached what was surely the peak.
The path widens as trees fall away to either side and a great vista opened up allowing us to see out in all directions. We pushed some snow away to find a stone marking the summit. We had done it, we reached the top!
Wanting to start a fire as soon as possible we look around to find the area surprisingly desolate. After all, there should be a lovely 3 walled hut up here just waiting to reward us for the difficult climb. Alas, there was nothing. Brian, with few words, runs down the path at the other side of the mountain hoping that the shelter is just below the tree line. As he returns, I can hear the defeat and anger in his voice, proclaiming the lack of any discernible shelter. As he reaches me again he drops to the ground and sits at the summit stone staring off into the distance.
After maybe ten minutes, we hear Byron and Kyle making their way up the last pass to the summit. Kyle calls out to ask how things are and Brian and I quickly respond that there is no shelter. Neither Byron or Kyle believe us until they reach the top and see for themselves. Once we are all together we realize the simple truth that we will not survive the night exposed to the elements. We need to figure something out.
There is no shelter… we will not survive the night.
Somehow Byron and I were still relatively mobile at this point and we elect to run further down the path Brian has briefly explored and leave the other two to find wood. The new path seems much more forgiving as it has been hard packed by snowmobiles at some point.
Knowing that some fun must be found to build our spirits, Byron begins running and leaping down the new slope: jumping and sinking into deep snow as he goes. It was actually quite fun! When we hit a trail break and see no sign of shelter we are worried once again. And then Byron sinks into the snow next to the trail sign and uncovers several signs that had been buried: one pointed towards shelter!
Scrambling back up the mountain I hear Kyle discussing digging a deep hole in the snow among the trees to shelter in. He is already collecting some small branches; maybe for a fire, maybe for the shelter.. I’m still not really sure. We break in with the news of an actually prebuilt shelter and everyone kicks back into gear. Brian gets up and once again pushes through to lead the way back down the other side of the mountain.
The path to shelter is longer than expected, but surely the signs wouldn’t lie. We turn own more corner and look up. Nestles between the switchbacks of the trail and only visible from where we are standing is the shelter: glorious in all that it offers, there is just one more stretch of snow to wade through.
Finally, we’ve reached the shelter. Snow is covering much of the front of the shelter and the fire pit is completely covered. We all climb in, overjoyed to have some measure of safety. I brought a small shovel and dig out area for a makeshift fire pit. Byron begins to build a fire as I attempt to gather more wood. Brian and Kyle can finally take off their boots and climb into sleeping bags in an attempt to bring up their body temperature.
Its getting dark and the fire isn’t working out. Despite Byron’s ability and persistence of actually laying in the snow to blow into the base of the fire, we eventually have to give it up as it dies down for a last time: all of the trees and branches are just too wet to burn. We resort to a small cook stove and a 8" cast iron skilled that Byron carried along the way. There was a grand idea of eating perfectly seared steaks at the end of a long hike, but we settled for partially cooked steaks between some wheat bread. It turns out the cook stove doesn’t work all that well to heat up a skillet and we just needed food in our stomachs. At this point, it didn’t matter it was still pretty perfect.
With food in our stomachs and warmth returning to our limbs, the night is coming to a good close. Kyle then, anecdotally recounts that we are in the beginning of bear and coyote season. Any time now, bears should be coming out of hibernation and coyotes roaming the hillsides looking to hunt. We look around; the cabin and ourselves covered in juices from the raw meat, pans and utensils laying about might as well be bait for such predators. Tiredly we move everything that has touched the steak outside of the shelter and stack it on top of the snow bank out front, we can’t muster the strength to get much further. With the final pleasant thought of patrolling wildlife looking for their first post-winter meal, we retreat to our sleeping bags clutching large camp knives close.
The occasional snore throughout the night provided small scares here and there, but overall we slept and awoke to another day. Warmer now, and with our sanity returning we cook breakfast as we desperately try to dry off wet gear. Various down-climb strategies are discussed, but ultimately we decide to continue following the hard packed snowmobile trail instead of venturing back down the previous day’s route. The day is warmer and dryer, and the terrain is relatively easy. When we meet a trailhead leading back towards the first shelter spotted the previous day we even recall and lament turning it down for the harder route. The last obstacle was getting back to the car, if it’s still there.. We all almost expect one last thing to go wrong and think about what we will do if we return to an empty parking lot.
Luckily, we returned to Kyle’s car just where we left it. We sat down, turned on the heat and let the type 2 fun from the day before sink in. It seems this is the most rewarding fun and often most remembered. If nothing else, better stories come from type 2 fun. Oh and if you’re not sure what type 2 fun is, check this out: The Fun Scale.
Oh yea, and we never went gold panning, in case you were wondering.