Weather PermittingWhen we plan a late-season hike, we always say we’ll do this or that, weather permitting. It’s a reasonable precaution, but we don’t expect the weather to take us up on it.
It is cold and damp in our tent. It has been raining for two days, and the water has insinuated itself into everything, including into our hearts and souls. Down bags lie limply on pads that are less soft and a great deal less warm than they were a few days before. The weather isn’t permitting much, including a hot meal. Cheese and crackers in the tent aren’t a satisfying dinner.
By night we are snappish, willing to argue over whose idea this trip was, and why we didn’t see this coming on the weather report. Arguing is a warming activity, so we keep it up in a half-hearted way until the drumming rain on the tent lulls us into stupor, if not sleep.
In the morning, weather permitting, we’ll hike the 15 miles to the road and hitch a ride home.
Weather permitting. It’s late September in the North Cascades. The weather is the tyrant.
Sometime in the night we wake up and the sound of the rain is gone. We imagine a bright sunny morning as we huddle deeper into our damp bags, happier at the prospect. It’s cold, but it does that when the clouds clear off. We are wearing everything that isn’t wet, and the cheese and crackers have worn off. Empty bellies are cold bellies, but we manage to drift off again.
We expect to wake early to bright sun, but we awaken more slowly, and all is still dim, though less grey than the previous day. Is it still early? Icy fingers fumble for a watch. Eight a.m.? The dimness says that the clouds haven’t gone, not completely. At least it’s quiet—no rain. A bit of a breeze stirs the trees and fingers its way into the tent.
About then we notice the white crust on our bags, on the inside of the fly.
One of us musters the courage to look outside, fumbling with zippers, and a light shower of ice floats down from a roof that no longer drips. We know what we’ll see out there, but we have to look.
It’s several inches deep, and still coming down from a grim sky. This is no blizzard, but visibility is limited, and the trail is already more covered than we’d like. The road suddenly seems a great deal farther away, and “weather permitting” a more sinister phrase.
One thing the weather now permits. Working under a tree where the snow hasn’t accumulated, we boil water and make a hot breakfast, boil it again and make extra coffee we drink while we pack up.
The tent is drier now, since the snow and ice shake off. Our fingers ache with the cold, though, and toes are numb inside now-frozen boots . Hot food and drink help, but the temperature has dropped, a lot. We start hiking. Movement will warm us.
We do get warm as we follow the trail, under its dusting of snow. The white stuff is still coming down, harder and faster than we like. Nerves are buzzing, keeping us on edge, scanning constantly to be sure we don’t lose the route. At least it’s not too windy. Weather permitting, we may still make the trailhead today.
The wind picks up. We exchange looks, but say nothing. We know. “Weather permitting” isn’t just a phrase, not here, not now. We pick up our pace, balancing the need for speed against the risk of slipping, of losing the trail in open places where the snow covers it.
Sometime around noon we stop, needing more food, and try to figure out where we are. If we could see more than a dozen yards, it would be easy to track our progress, but with no visible landmarks, we can only try to follow the twists and turns, ups and downs, of the trail on the map.
Four or five miles. Conditions are slowing us down too much, but we can’t go any faster. The weather doesn’t permit it.
It’s not a big deal, we remind ourselves. We were planning to be another night or even two out here. We have plenty of food.
It’s cold, and the wind has picked up some more. Maybe that’s just because we’re on a ridge. We trace the route on the map, and see we should be dropping soon, back into the trees. The shelter will help, and with luck the trail will be bare, or close to it. Even up here, the wind offers one benefit: the snow isn’t getting any deeper. It’s blowing off to drift in the lee of trees and boulders.
Somewhere in the afternoon we suddenly relax. We aren’t going to get out today. We know that. But we have decent equipment, experience, and a camera. When we stop worrying, the land is beautiful. We slow down, take some photos. We even build a small snowman, just because we can.
Fear lingers in the back of the mind. What if the snow is so deep by morning that we can’t get through, or can’t find the trail? What if our damp gear isn’t good enough to keep us warm? What if, what if? We ask it, then look at each other and shrug. We are here now. We can worry, or we can enjoy a world no other hikers are sharing.
We choose to smile.
Weather permitting, we’ll get home in a day or so.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015