Leading Eleven Souls Out of Tamarack Lake

To validate my left knee’s recovery, I headed to Tamarack on a solo expedition, anticipating an overnight discharge of one or two inches of snow. The brutal storm actually brought down two and a half feet (75cm) of powder, locking me in the back country — seemingly for the several days. The only alternative was to lead out a group of 10 college students, coincidentally at that lake and unprepared for the circumstances, thorough unforgiving terrain.

My arrival at Tamrack via Echo Lakes was all fun and games, I started a fire by grabbing dry wood from the core of fallen trees. The cold afternoon turned into an experience of ambient heating in the wild. I ate, napped, ate some more, and fell asleep early for the night.

I hadn’t brought my Spot GPS, or my solar charger, and my phone was my only means of communication: only I had No Service. I attempted to text my location to my family, without any luck. I had indicated that my planned destination was Lake of the Woods, but at the last minute settled for Tamrack. Separated by miles and mountains from any road, the lack of communication was unsettling.

The storm was vicious, with winds so severe I found myself saying to it: “ok, take the tent if you will, but you will have to take me with it.” Stretching my body, I hoped to stop it from lifting off. Anticipating the storm, I had anchored the tent to the ground, covering the anchors with heavy rocks. As the snow poured, it froze around those rocks. This is the only reason the tent stayed in place. In my sleep, the tent half-collapsed under the weight of the snow. But for the most part, other than the howling of the wind, I dozed cozily thanks to a brand new sleeping pad designed for high mountain.

Upon thoughtful consideration, it was clear: I could not leave the wilderness that day or perhaps for many days. It would be nearly impossible to find the route, or to walk through the deep snow powder (or later in the slush); and if I got injured I did not have a way to call for rescue; and if lost I would not even be found by passers-by. My food supplies where relatively low, for a couple of days, though I have found through experience that I can perform highly with little food for about five days. Most key: I had a water boiler and a water filter.

As locked as I was in place, the setting was breathtaking, which kept me out of my tent and wondering around. Thus I saw a set of tents that had been erected while I slept. At the first sign of life, I offered my shovel so they could dig themselves out. Improperly equipped for the weather, they quickly shared their desire to leave.

They would have never been able to navigate their way out of there; but I could provide that for them. This eliminated all the risks of my exiting on my own, by having them as my fellow travelers. I shared with their leader the route, mapped it on a chart, pointed to every mountain along the way, shared compass headings that would keep us safe.

Thus appointed as their navigator, I started taking all of our eleven souls out of there. With snow powder often up to my hips, with invisible creeks running under the snow, continually tripping on rocks that could not be anticipated, we made ground inch-by-inch.

Their partnership proved vital. One of them spotted a wooden marker that took us from being off-trail, to being on the Pacific Coast Trail. And after heading the group for the most uncertain two miles, parting the snow by kicking it aside every step, I developed a cramp in my right hip. Immediately one of them took the lead, often conferring with me on the route — but otherwise I got to walk through a path plowed by the whole team.

Words cannot describe the majesty of nature in the heart of the Sierra Nevada.

I can only hope that I return to it more and more often. Oddly I love it exactly as it is when nobody else wants to be there. There are radical cabins on Echo Lakes that few know about…don’t tell anyone. It is transforming to travel in absolute solitude.

Once back, the bad news: my car was under the snow, down the steep slope of an unserviced road, with no hope of any tow vehicle getting me out of there. The only option: wait for days till the snow melts!

So I reached out to the team, and once again they proved essential to getting back to civilization. But not without caveats: we plowed through 100 yards of snow in their parking lot, only to find ourselves without traction, stuck on ice.

After several unresponsive calls to AAA, Forest Rangers, the Fire Department, the answer came in the form of a teenager excited to play with his Subaru Forester 2.5 all-wheel-drive, license plate “LIVE IT.” He jerked his car, but managed to tow the team’s van up a slight slope.

It had taken us five painful hours to make three miles to safety. Again, we could relax and just enjoy the view.

Now regarding my left knee: it is confirmed ready for prime time.

But as for my car: it is still buried under the snow, hopefully for just a few more days.

POSTSCRIPT

Having slept on the experience, I got important insights:

1) The perhaps excessive optimism of the group kept me from undue emotional downs as a leader. My time as lamb following a shepherd, when I had my hip cramp, allowed me to see the blindness of all followers — who assume that all will go well — as it must. This disconnect served a major purpose: to provide an emotional center of gravity to the whole effort. If I had extracted just myself out of the wild, at any number of checkpoints in the trajectory, I would have suffered severe self-doubt: physical well being, correctness of the route, the weather, likelihood of success…

2) While I waited for the snow holding my car to melt, I stayed at the Strawberry Lodge in Kyburz. I love their hearth, endless hot water, and country potatoes. What I did not expect is that they would rally behind me in the recovery of my car. Jason, the manager’s boyfriend, at the waitresses’ request, offered his services. I described my car’s bleak setting, clarifying that he may have to drive me back to the lodge if the snow hadn’t watered down. To which he responded: “I will tow you out of there, whatever it takes.” Then he showed up in his impressive construction workers’ Ford.

Jason refused to charge me for the effort, totally paying it forward. Giving for no reason at all, and expecting nothing in return, is perhaps as close to majesty as we humans can aspire. As true nature as we can get.

3) As the team finally reached the parking lot after the long hike, everybody shouted in excitement, that is everyone except for me. I felt something was wrong with me; at the time I attributed it to my not growing up in the US, where that kind of yelling is more common.

But as I finally drove off with my car, it started shaking in the freeway, and I realized that something else was at work. Ice had attached to the car’s front breaks, and I had to use my shovel to break it off. Only then I was able to speed away back home. Thereafter, I found myself yelling in excitement — much the same way as the team had before. The extraction of every one, and every thing, was DONE. While celebrating every accomplishment, it is no doubt a leader’s role to remain intent on the whole group achieving true success.

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