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Reflecting on bad decisions on the way to Reflection Lakes
posted by John : April 1, 2016 (no foolin')


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Mastering the downclimb


The lessons that stick with me most are the ones where I can find the time to reflect on what happened without all the emotional baggage that usually comes truly bad decisions. In other words, nobody got hurt and I won't make that mistake again.

What mistake? Taking two kids up a sketchy slope before they were ready. Which kids? Lilly and Henry. Where? Above Narada Falls in Mount Rainier National Park.

Looking up from the end of the maintenance road the slope didn't look so bad. The snow conditions felt stable and the avalanche forecast wasn't anything to be concerned about. There was a track switchbacking up the steep hill and many others had been on it already this morning since this was a popular access into the Tatoosh Range during Winter.

Yet I thought initially we'd wind our way up through the trees. The guides all suggest taking the longer, safer route when the snow wasn't stable, but that didn't apply this time. It didn't apply to us.

(It should have.)

Up we went. Pretty quickly I started feeling uneasy. Lilly and Henry are both pretty strong snowshoers, but they're still only eight and 11. And although they've played with ice axes they don't have any practical experience, not to mention we weren't carrying axes. Instead, I stuck very, very close to them, slightly downhill, and they used trekking poles without snow baskets to approximate an axe's spike.

When we got to a switchback about half way up we could have continued straight about 50 feet into the trees. Looking at the remaining slope above us I figured we could continue up without too much more trouble. While my gut told me to head for the trees my head said that was too much trouble and would take too much time. Just one more switchback and we'll be at the top.

At the next switchback my common sense finally kicked in. Instead of heading back out onto the open slope we broke trail into the trees. I wish I could say there was some triumphant moment when the slope gave out and slid where we would have been. Or that once in the safety of the trees one of the kids lost their footing, but only slid a few feet. Nope. Nothing like that at all. We sat on the bare rocks for a few minutes so they could snack and I could think through what I had done wrong.

It all came down to not trusting my instincts. Even before I saw the slope my instinct told me to play it safe in the trees. Once we were on the snow I felt like we should retreat. Even nearly all the way up the hill I kept pushing when the safer route was obviously the better choice.

At eight and 11 the kids are old enough that I can talk with them about times like this at least in abstract ways. While we clambered up the bare ground through the trees and along the snowy road to Reflection Lakes we discussed what might have been done better. They know I make mistakes so this wasn't new, but it was the first time we'd had a chance to talk it through while still on the adventure.

As valuable as the discussion was, the topic faded when we got to Reflection Lake and dropped our packs. It was a beautiful sunny day, though the Mountain was hiding behind her own clouds that seemed to move past and then somehow reappear. (It's only in the time lapse below that it's easy to see the clouds forming just when you think it's going to clear.)

(Don't worry. I now have a tripod mount for my iPhone.)

We played on the snowy beach for an hour or more before returning to Narada Falls. Standing above the slope we agreed that we didn't want to head down that way. (Had I been with my usual hiking buddies we'd have glissaded it and had a great run.) Instead, we followed the well-trod track to the route through the woods we should have taken up in the first place. There, the kids did get to glissade a few short hills and I was happy that I wasn't placing them in unnecessary danger.

The moral of the story is you need to trust your instincts. When I'm out on a big mountain any one of our party can make the call that sends us home without a summit. Instincts can play that role when there's no one else around. Listen to your gut and make the best decisions you can. Most importantly, when it's all done look back and think about what you could have done better. And never be too proud to admit you could have made better decisions.

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