A Hike to Remember: Dealing with Death, Bears, and High Altitude
The rain intensified as high winds kicked around the vehicles with an unrelenting roar. We couldn’t see much of anything. The hazard lights were on for the three vehicles and we drove at a snail’s pace, looking for a safe place to pull off the road. The lead car turned onto a dirt road in the flat lands that gave no shelter from a storm. We were headed to Colorado for a hike and the adventure had already begun as tornado watches and a violent storm forced us off the road. We sat in our vehicles on the dirt road and waited for the storm to pass. The winds were kicking at the car and causing it to shift and push as if it might throw us into the barbed wire fence on our right. We glanced over to our left when lightning struck and lit the ditch that was churning into a roaring river and rising quickly.
We started honking at the lead car that we needed to head to higher ground. There was no service and no one was answering their phones. There was no response so we started the process of turning around between the two cars to get the hell out of there. This made the lead car take notice and head up the road. When they found a wide enough spot to turn around their headlights shown on the flash flood that was sneaking up on us in the darkness.
We got back on the road with our hazard lights on and crept along. Lights shone up ahead in the blur of heavy rain. A closed gas station gave shelter at the pumps, most of which was already taken by a semi-truck, a galactic taxi (not kidding, it said that on the door), and a few cars. We found some room for the cars and jumped out to get under the roof by the front doors to laugh while we watched the storm.
The sun was blazing down on us as the elevation increased and each breath became more of a challenge. We were just getting started. There were eleven of us hiking up to the mountain lake in Colorado and it was an arduous climb. My pack was heavy and I was struggling to catch a good breath. I started using the occasional spots of shade as a timer, stopping in every shady spot to relax for small moments, then get to the next shady spot. The trees were thick at first and there was plenty of shade to hide from the sun which meant plenty of quick breaks, but it didn’t last.
Crowded pine trees gave way to views of open meadows far below. If a good sitting rock or log showed itself I would thank it, take a seat, drink from my water bottle, then get up and head to the next comfort zone. Either shade or a launching pad. Launching pads are rocks or logs that keep your legs from bending too low, so you can sit with your pack still on, and not have to squat thrust the weight of your pack to get back to your feet.
After hiking 200 Miles along the Ozark Highlands and Buffalo River Trail in the Ozarks of Arkansas I made it a rule to never pass up a good launch pad. In this landscape I added another rule for myself, don’t miss a moment of shade on a hot cloudless day at high elevation, even it’s just a few breaths, after all the goal is to get to the top. Those little moments gave me seconds to let my heart rate slow and appreciate the beauty around me. It can be easy to get stuck in my head and start internalizing on those tough uphill stretches.
The only cure for internalization is to remember to stop now and again, take a look around, and appreciate the beauty that surrounds you.
For some they have to look deep, and when you can get away now and again you remember there are more important things in life. Gone are the petty grudges and there is a whole new world to explore and adventures to be had. The ability to ignore things can be a great gift, but you have to pay attention to the important things. Hold on to those moments in life that make you smile or make your heart race. Remember the people who inspire you along the way. Cherish the memories and the lives of those who have gone. Don’t let anyone pull you down from your cloud, and reach a hand out now and again to pull someone up from the ground. Remind people they are unique and strong. Sometimes that simple kindness is all it takes.
The shelter of trees thinned and an open meadow of green and yellow grass encircled by pine groves lay below us. I heard the sound of a drone and crept around the rock to find it. A man in an orange hat was watching the drone footage from his remote, Uriah. It meant the lead crew of Super Nazario Brothers, Wolfman, and Schoeppe were waiting up for the rest of us.
We took a quick break without packs to appreciate the view. There were a few stragglers as the rest of the crew came together. Coop was close behind followed by David, Goose, Jeremy, and Walt. Once we knew they were in good shape, it was back to the trail. The lead crew were off like gazelles. I trudged my way through it and stayed in the middle of the pack.
I had prepared for this trip by putting exercise into my daily routine. I would pace around with a kettle bell in my backpack curling five pound weights to simulate trekking poles while listening to Harry Potter en Espanol, hoping some magical language skills would seep into my brain. Without a vehicle I was walking everywhere to run errands and find a job. I had no luck for far too long. I started walking into town with a backpack that only carried a snack, notebook, pen, and a thirty-five pound kettle bell.
I finally found some luck and was hired on by a rental company at the airport. It was a nine mile bike ride to get there. I had already been pulled over on my bike leaving the interview by airport security, he was polite enough, but naturally I hated the inconvenience. Apparently I wasn’t allowed to have a bike on airport property. I handed over my ID, while explaining I had just completed an interview, and this bike was all I had. He called it in and received word that I was harmless and had a valid driver’s license. He repeated the company name, handed back my license, and let me be. A few emails and phone calls later I was re-assured it wouldn’t be a problem if I was employed at the airport to ride my bike on their roads. That bike ride became my new routine, get up, throw on the backpack, and prepare for an hour long bike ride to work, regardless of the weather. It was a struggle at first, but the ride got easier with every trip.
The crew at Willow Lake caught up to one beautiful spot with a good view, shade, and places to sit and relax. We made lunch, had snacks, and took a load off to enjoy a moment of reflection, conversation, and laughter. Other hikers started making their way up the mountain and the race began. We knew there was a chance the space might be crowded up top to camp. When we saw other hikers with large packs, David said, “first there gets a good campsite,” and got everyone to their feet. The lead crew took off in a race to beat the newcomers to the top and save a spot for the rest of us. Meanwhile David sat back and relaxed to enjoy the beauty and take pictures. Like me, he knew our athletes in the bunch would scale that mountain in no time and save us a spot. I didn’t need to hurry, but I was ready to get that heavy pack off my back.
We continued to climb, each person at their own pace. I was in the middle with Ryne and we continued our pace of chasing shadows. I had gone through 64 ounces of water, with a little help, and my bottles were empty. I came across a dripping creek from the mountain wall, and decided to wait up for someone with a filter. I have always used water filters on my trips. We split them up to save weight, which meant that the water purifiers were either way ahead of me or way behind me. I took my pack off and got comfortable sitting on a rock. A few of the crew made the path in front of me, neither with a purifier or water. I knew it could be awhile, and decided I didn’t need one. The water smelled good, and had gone through a natural purifying system down the mountain before trickling into my bottle. I filled both water bottles and decided if any dirty water gave me parasites, I would just eat a cigarette, and send them packing. Source: 1986 Army Field Manual (do not ingest more than one in 48 hours). It wasn’t necessary, the fresh water smelled good and tasted wonderful.
In 2017 we lost Melody Lane, a heart transplant patient with a beautiful soul. She loved to make others laugh, and if you didn’t laugh, she didn’t care, because she would be giggling to herself regardless. You just couldn’t help but giggle with her.
I recently lost another wonderful friend shortly before this trip. We all called him, ‘Jib’, and he was a great friend to many people I know and to others I have never met. We were all connected by one great man with an indelible laugh that turned everyone into a successful comedian. You just had to hear that great laugh again so you could laugh with him. His name was Caleb “Jib” Shaner.
We used to walk the hills of Avoca in the dark to hang out with other metal heads and strange night folk. We would hang out in the place we called “the barn” and just listen to music. Jib’s death was a terrible loss to the entire crew and to his family. His daughter Destiny has been a part of our lives through so many changes and Destiny if you read this, you know you have a family with all of us, and don’t hesitate to call on any of us that had a hand in raising you at some stage in your life. You are so strong because of him and he stayed strong because of you. Caleb ‘Jib’ Shaner we miss you terribly, but don’t let that keep your spirit here. There are world’s beyond and let us know what you find when we get there.
The crew I grew up with were wild, strong, and creative creatures. We had all experienced a different kind of pain, and found each other hiding in strange places. Connections were made with others we have bumped into along the way. I have come to cherish them all. We have known each other for so long and had so many wild adventures that we have become family.
Those I have lost were fresh in my mind as I hiked up the mountain. Others from our crew passed by, and I offered water. They drank and we carried on, ready to get to the top and finally take these packs off for a few days. The sun blazed down on us as we switch-backed across boulder fields. The comfortable shade of trees disappeared, but the view was breath-taking.
I took a moment to enjoy the view under the last tree I would see for some time before I started into the open. I just wanted to climb to the next point of shade, and the sooner the better. I put my trekking poles back like a skier, looped my thumbs under the straps, hiked my pack up, put my knees at a slight bend, and double timed it. The switchbacks allowed me to see the wonderful view down the mountain frequently without slowing my pace, and I would shift gears depending on which muscles were sore.
Some uphill sections cause me to internalize and stare at the ground. I would get lost in memories, sometimes even grudges, but I pushed them aside, because none of them really matter. The past is gone, but it’s the memories you keep that will define you, and don’t let anger and negative energy be among them. I stopped to look around again as I crested the last of the switchbacks that would provide a view. I held my hand up over the sun to shield my eyes, and took a look at the vast expanse of the valley.
The trees started to appear again after crossing over the saddle of the mountain. The wonderful view of openness was gone, but I had been given shade and was grateful. The pines sang with bird calls. An angry squirrel tried to scream at me from the trees while still holding onto its acorn. Whoops, can’t do both. It dropped the acorn and looked around frantically with disappointment. I laughed while it yelled at me in twittering squeaks. Then it ran away and up the tree.
Thick pines gave way to grassy meadows. A herd of goats bellowed at me. Then it was the sound of campers and brightly colored tents. Quite a few of them. I was glad to see the lead pack enjoying the shade of pine trees with their tents up in a great open area with flat ground, plenty of shade, and a spot for a hammock.
The rest of the crew came trickling in and we had plenty of daylight. I tried to figure out where to put my hammock, and realized most of the trees were on the verge of collapse, widow-makers ready to fall with a push of wind. The more I looked around the more danger I saw, there were trees already collapsed held up only by another dry and cracked tree. I had no choice and found a decent set of trees that still held some bit of vegetation. I re-checked the possible decent of the widow-makers to assess an escape plan should I hear a crack in the middle of sleep, then ingrained it into my mind so I could wake up ready if needed.
We set up camp, made coffee and food, and were able to relax without such a heavy load on our backs. The energy came back and we had a look around. There was a large group in the adjacent camp, and we were glad for it, because we knew we could just relax and have a good time.
One of our neighbors was a trail crew and they had some major gear for bear lines with their belongings in tough plastic containers hanging from pulley systems strung between the trees and high in the air. We had para-cord, gorilla tape, caribeners, and ingenuity. We looked around to figure out how to make a bear-line. The dead trees would collapse if a bear did get a hold of it, and the options were incredibly limited. Our valiant attempts failed due to the thickness of the pine trees and getting a rope around two trees high enough to be away from a bear in dwindling light.
Lesson #68: Deal with it now, or pay for it later.
We had scent proof bags that were supposed to mask the scent and we kept all of our trash in one and the sealed bags in another. Night fell and our options for bear lines were limited and didn’t work. We were out of time. I kept all of my food separate in a heavy duty vinyl dry bag, clasped it to a stump, and hung caribeners around a metal coffee mug as an alarm system. The caribeners were linked to a small one that would tap on the bottom of the cup if anything touched our food.
As nightfall approached we hear the call of, “Bear!” ring out from the other camp, then the sound of a loud bang.
Night fell and the mountain grew silent. Then I hear, “What the…That bear is right here!”
The others rustled from their sleep. “Where?”
“I’m looking at him.” Walt said.
The bear ran off into the darkness away from the headlamp. Then we relaxed, and there was even some snoring, which seemed to attract the bear. I hear the crinkling of a large plastic bag, the “scent-proof” bags that we put our trash in and rolled up securely. Scent-proof? NOPE. More like scented with little morsels of backpacking meals. My Nalgene bottles were in my boots and my headlamp was wrapped around the right boot. I reached from the hammock and clicked my light. When I saw the large black bear tearing his way through the bag I started yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” and nothing happened. I put my headlamp on swung my legs over and started clapping a beat as I yelled “Go! Go! Go! and walked slowly towards him.” He let go of the bag and crawled back up the rock. Then he went around and headed to the next campsite, a crew of older men and women with grey hair and tough as nails who had warned us of the bear. They heard the call and were up with a flashlight and clapping and stomping and saying, “go away, scat, get,” and other single syllables meant to get rid of a predator.
It turns out our campsite was just the first on the list. Then the bear would make its rounds to the other campsites, dig through whatever it could find, and scamper when the humans finally did something about it. Then to the next campsite, and so on, all night long. The bear tried to come in from another route near a couple of tents but his quiet steps faltered and rolled a large overturned log with a loud hum. I shined my light behind me and his nose shone through the darkness and disappeared over the log and out into the night. I felt like a tasty kebab rolled up in my hammock. I wasn’t going to be sleeping. That much was clear.
The next time I heard anything out of the ordinary, it was that crinkling sound again. That bear was back in camp and working his way through empty camp meal bags he had torn out from the pile of rocks and scent-proof bags with pulls from his teeth while it’s claws held it down. I swung my legs and called while clapping my hands, “Go! Go! Go!” The bear looked up at me, and went back to chewing. “Uriah! Where are you?”
“Uriah’s right here, he’s okay,” Schoeppe said.
“I know he’s okay. I just want him to get the bear mace. This bear does not give a f^%!” I yelled.
Others sprang into action which caused the bear to leave back into the boulders above us. We knew he would be back. There was nothing we could do about the torn bag except pee around it, put logs and rocks on top of it, and keep our eyes and ears out.
Uriah was up and ready for the bear’s next approach. I shined my light over the hammock and hear, “Okay I’m going to mace him!”
“Uriah’s going to mace him!” was repeated by others.
“Okay, go for it!” We prepared our nostrils and covered our mouths. Luckily, the wind was on our side.
I heard a growl, a sneeze, then grumbling.
“Oh, he did not like that at all.” Uriah said.
The bear turned back toward the boulders shaking it’s head back and forth with a grumbling growl as several lights now shone on it. It disappeared into the boulders. It wouldn’t be the last time we would see him. We named the bear, “Steve.” Steve was the subject of much cursing the following day by many campers.
The goats and deer had come out to play and graze nearby and we knew they could keep an eye on things while we re-assessed the situation. We needed a good bear line if we were going to get any sleep and make a summit. In the meantime, we played and had some fun while we thought about our options. There were some willing to stay back at camp and keep an eye on things.
We hiked to Willow Lake along cascading waterfalls and ran around the giant playground of forests, trees, and boulders around the lake. We made an effort to keep it clean and pristine as it was meant to be.
I took off my boots and was wearing a black Fear Factory shirt from the Demanufacture album in remembrance of Jib. It was given to me by Adam at Jib’s memorial metal fundraiser. It was one of many bands and albums that bonded us. We listened to Type O Negative’s October Rust while sitting in the barn in Autumn or traveling to see them. We hung out at train bridges at midnight, snuck into cemeteries, cow pastures, and parks over barbed wire fences during a wild time in our lives. The shirt was a celebration of a wonderful friend.
It was also to celebrate other’s I’ve lost: Melody Lane and her wonderful spirit. Lauren Elaine Reynolds who was like a niece to me. They were talented, creative, unique and wonderful souls taken too early in life. Matthew “Jesus” Musteen, the gentle giant. Heart problems gave him a limited time, but he celebrated life, and helped others to appreciate it with him. Cliff Jones was friendly and hug-able, and one of the closest things to a real life teddy bear I’ve ever known.
I jumped and ran barefoot across boulders and pine needles. I worked my way around the lake having to tiptoe over sharp rocks or spines and picking them out of my feet, sometimes following the lake shore or having to retreat into the rocks along animal trails. I kept walking until I found my own little fantasy world.
I finally found my way to the end where a giant waterfall dropped from the cliff down boulder fields into the lake. Wolfman and Schoeppe met me where fields of blue Colorado Columbine flowers grow in green pastures to lead the way to the falls. A raven flew over the waterfall as I tiptoed along sharp boulders, trying to find flat ground to jump or crawl to.
We made it to the waterfall and turned into kids who had finally found something worthy of overtaking our imaginations with beautiful visions of reality. We played and celebrated life under the falls. Wolf and Schoeppe had stripped down and bathed under the falls in heaving breaths before heading back out into the sunlight. I took my turn and waded into the shallow pool, placing my hands flat to the cliff face and bowing my head to the rush of cold water overhead. The water was freezing and took my breath away. I shook my head and headed back into sunlight and wandered around taking pictures.
We all enjoyed the day, each in our own way. Some of the group were on the cliff above us, others were hanging out on flat rocks with extended legs soaking it all in.
We went back to camp and settled in for some dinner and a re-charge.
I borrowed one of the Guardian water purifiers, a few water bottles, and headed to the creek to pump some water. I followed the trail to the water and jumped across the rocks for a little fun to the next waterfall pool. When I got there I looked to my right and there sat a guru looking gentleman, shirtless in a gold wrap, long black hair, and thin black beard past his neck. There was a tattoo of foreign inscription along his forearms. He was sitting in half-lotus in a patch of grass and smiled and waved at me. I waved back and he said something I couldn’t hear over the falls. I stepped closer to him. “Do you have any electrolyte powder?” He asked. “Only if you have any you can spare. I have made a long journey.”
“Yes. I have some back at camp,” I smiled, “I can bring some back to you, or you can just stop by our camp.”
“I’ll just go to your camp, don’t trouble yourself. It’s the big one where you come in?”
“I am Siva.”
“John. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” he nodded. I went back to pumping water and had to stretch myself across the boulders to make it work. I look up and Siva is squatted on a boulder above me below the falls. “Is that really necessary?” he asks.
“No, not really,” I reply, “This water is clean and I have already drank straight from it, but I am pumping water out of habit.”
He smiled. I finished pumping three bottles and let Siva know to join me at camp whenever he pleased.
I got back to camp and said to our crew, “I invited a shaman into our camp and he will be arriving anytime, welcome him.” They all looked at me weird, nodded, and went back to what they were doing.
I dug into my pack and found my electrolyte powders. I had more than enough for me. In fact I had brought extra treats for everyone and was carrying a heavy pack in the hopes of sharing. Siva arrived, looked around our camp nervously, spotted me, and smiled, “John.”
I greeted him with a smile, “How do you pronounce your name again?”
“Siva,” he said as an introduction to our wild crew.
I told him he was free to join us and to get comfortable and relax. He humbly and graciously accepted the electrolyte powder and refused the extras I tried to give him, saying, “You will need them. This is plenty. Thank you.”
I had a whole bag of tangerines and offered him one along with the rest of our crew. Letting them know I really did want to lighten my pack. Some accepted and Siva was gracious. He sat down on a fallen log and relaxed while he ate. I sat down on the ground nearby and said, “I want to hear your story if you’re willing to tell it.”
He smiled and recounted his adventures. Siva has been on a long pilgrimage from California, to burning man, to Buddhist shrines, up mountains, and down trails. He had only a shopping bag and a few tiny disposable water bottles. He talked with us and told us of his journey. On the way up the mountain he tried to carry a cantaloupe, but it fell and he lost it. He was going to head back down the mountain and wanted to do some of it in the light of the moon. Siva sat with us for awhile, and we talked about life and things beyond. Trying to find balance, borrowing energy from an ever expanding universe, making amends with your ego instead of trying to defeat it, finding self-confidence without arrogance. He told me I was special and unique. It was something I really needed to hear. 2017 was a great year for me: I self-published a novel, finished a painting and sculpture I had been working on for over a year, lived in an art community, and completed a 200 mile thru-hike, but the time since had been tough. I am lucky to have good friends. I had been staying in a friend’s guest room for months and riding a bike to work, trying hard to get back on my feet. I was depressed, sometimes angry, and doing my best to keep my spirits up, but it was difficult. Siva’s positive energy and words helped lift my spirits.
We shared poetry and I sang a poem in return. Siva got to see the bear we called, “Steve,” who made a bold appearance on the boulder behind our camp in daylight to let us know he would be coming for us in the night. We sent Siva off with some electrolyte powder, tangerine, a bit of soft granola, and our best wishes for his journey.
A few of the crew had figured out how to do a bear line and got to work. Ryne and Wolfman were climbing the parallel pine trees and forcing themselves through thick branches. The weak, dead branches that broke had been tossed aside and the ropes tossed up to each tree to tie and tighten. Wolfman needed a knife and Jeremy had one sheathed that was safe to throw up to him. Uriah did the honors and Wolf man caught the knife in the air in epic fashion. The bear lines were made far from camp. We separated the trash in a separate bear line away from our fresh food. I strapped my dry bag in the pine tree beside the fresh food, up high, and through the thick of it, hoping it might continue to hide from the bear who had yet to notice it.
We realized the sunset would be soon as blue skies turned to pastel shades of orange, pink, and purple across the landscape. We made our way down to a good view point through the trees. I stumbled upon Schoeppe and Wolfman and asked if they found a good spot to watch the sunset.
Schoeppe replied, “You know where you’re going. You don’t need a guide.”
He was right in so many ways. I wandered through the trees and then saw the rest of the crew amassing on an exposed piece of rock over the valley. We watched the sunset in silence as an orange haze turned into pink and purple like a great mist that covered the entire landscape below us and to mountains on the horizon.
Lesson #136: All night Bear Watch begins when Steve says it does.
The trash was the first to go. Steve the bear had climbed all the way up the tree, extended his claws and just tore the bag from its bindings. We heard the crunch of defeat. I set my trip wire bells on the bear line attached to our bags so if Steve had a go at our fresh, sealed food, we could try to stop him. Another crew stayed up all night to keep Steve at bay as the clinking cup rattled. They chased him out of the other campsites and bear-maced him a third time to keep him out of the trees where he was caught trying to cut the rope our bags were hanging on. Thanks to them, I finally got a little bit of sleep. I would wake up to the strobe light effect of people running with headlamps trying to run the bear off with varying techniques. Knowing the situation was well taken care of, I would try to get back to sleep.
The spray of bear mace unfortunately caught another camper as well as a few of our own. When we apologized the next morning to the camper, he said, “That bear deserved it, bastard.” turned out it was his fourth attempt to summit Kit Carson behind the lake. Steve the bear had eaten all of his food during the night and left him with only a warm pudding snack. He had to go back down the mountain. It was a sentiment we had heard the previous day when campers left after having to stay up all night to defend their camp from Steve the bastard bear, the tamest of the comments. “Bear fu@%ery!” was one of my favorites.
We were all in good spirits the next morning, but tired, and not in shape for a summit as a solid group, which is what we were going to need. The lack of sleep and intense sunlight at high elevation had taken its toll and we were spent. It was time to head back down the mountain.
We made the trip down and the lead crew were so far ahead they drove into town and came back with cold beer before the rest of us arrived. As others made their way down the mountain to be handed a cold beer, they were confused, and asked how they had kept that beer cold this whole time. The Super Nazario Brothers simply said, “magic,” and it wasn’t a lie.
Check out johnozmore.com for artwork, sculptures, writing, and photography from the author or to purchase the Dark Fantasy novel, “The Blood of Winter” from Amazon, available in paperback and Kindle versions.
E-book versions of the Dark Fantasy, “The Blood of Winter” are also available for Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Scrib’d, Angus & Robertson, and other major retailers.