Our heaviest sled is broken. The aluminum has cracked at the rivet where the haul-bars attach to the plastic hull. Heavy snowflakes fill the air like ash from a volcanic eruption, covering our jackets in sopping white blankets as we huddle together and discuss our options, which are few. We can either jury-rig a new haul system and keep going, or turn around right here. Checking the map and GPS, I determine that we are about fifteen difficult miles from the car. It has taken us two long days to get here and, after this heavy snowfall, our descent is not likely to be much quicker. Every day that we push deeper into this silent wilderness means another day tracing our track back home. Still, none of us are even close to giving up. Brandon uncoils bright red cord and begins fashioning a yoke.
|Leif prepares to move further upriver.|
There is clearly a reason why no one ventures here and we are gradually discovering it. Windfall, deep drainages, rootballs, dense underbrush are common obstacles. I can’t imagine a place wilder than this. Forward movement is more akin to breakdancing than to walking. Considering the terrain and conditions, I’m surprised there haven’t been more equipment failures, or injuries. Our rain shells are like suits of armor. Wearing mine makes me feel almost invincible. If only our tents and sleds and bodies could be so burly.
|Leif carrying sleds over one of many small creeks.|
“It’s not going to be pretty,” says Brandon, “but we can give it a try.”
“Ok, sweet! Clip me into that thing,” I say.
“Sure. It’s your funeral.”
Tree wells are like mixing bowls; river crossings are tightrope acts; the snow is as heavy as gold and the sky is albino. Evergreen branches and jagged snags are loaded with dense powder. Every so often, when their carrying capacity is surpassed, the trees release enormous clumps that plummet to the ground and explode like mortar shells, spraying our faces with frozen dust and leaving ominous craters in our wending path.
|Brandon and Leif carry smallest sled over tributary.|
It’s slow going. We skin for over seven hours today and gain little more than two miles toward Mount Anderson. At this rate, it will take us weeks to get to the glacier. Our food and fuel won’t last that long, even though our spirits might.
|Brandon crosses river with skis and soaked pack.|
At one point, as we’re nearing our next camp, the sled rolls out of the skin track and tumbles down a steep chute between fir trees. I brace myself; the sharp jerk takes me off my feet. Luckily, I manage to dig my ski edges into the powder, which gives me enough traction to stop myself from being dragged into the Doeswallips River below. I’m dangling upside down for a few terrifying moments until, with Brandon’s help, I clamber upright and we pull the sled back onto the trail.
|Jenna crosses snow covered bridge over Dosewallips River.|
“Thanks,” I say, shaking my head and brushing off my jacket.
“Yeah man. That was a close one,” he says, and as we look at each other—and at the battered sled—I begin to feel laughter tickling my lungs. It starts as a few dumb chuckles exhaled in unison and grows into a bellyaching, throat-stinging cackle. It brings tears to my eyes.
|Joss and sled covered in fresh snowfall.|
What are we laughing about? The casual observer might think we’re crazy and that is certainly possible, but there is something primal happening here, something that is very hard to describe. We’re laughing because we’re so deep in the wilderness that even the tiniest injury would be a catastrophe—help is so far away. We’re laughing because we’ve never moved slower in the backcountry, because our sled is broken and our feet are cold. We’re laughing because the snow is falling heavy and deep, because our sleeping bags are wet, because our skins are covered with river grime. We’re laughing because this place is incredibly beautiful, because we’re setting our own track, because this entire adventure is one hell of a lot of fun.