By Annie Gassmann
We were nearing the end of a mother–daughter backpack trip into the Scapegoat Wilderness. I was in my late teens, eager to explore tall mountains, dark forests and pretend I was the first person to step foot in wild places. We had been enjoying the freedom and solitude of the backcountry for five days, but it was time to re-enter the “real world.” Our packs still seemed a bit heavy, but we only had ten miles to hike out, including crossing a lofty unnamed mountain pass.
It was early afternoon as we started the approach to the pass that would take us from one side of the Continental Divide to the other. We slowly worked our way up meandering switchbacks and met a couple on a day hike who had just come off the pass. The man and the woman looked a little shaken and their first words to us were, “Is there another way to get out? Can we reach the trailhead from this side?”
We were a little confused by their question, not understanding why they didn’t just turn around and go out the way they had come. The woman finally explained that the wind was pretty strong on the pass. My mom joked that we would just put our arms out and fly down the mountain. The woman narrowed her eyes and softly muttered, “I believe you might just do that.” Not sure what she meant, we said good luck and goodbye and continued on our way.
With the early afternoon sun beating down on us, a little breeze sounded like a good thing. As we continued to climb, the breeze did indeed pick up – at an incredible rate. Each step up the trail seemed to magnify the wind. When we stopped for a break, my mom and I looked at each other with our eyes wide. We had to yell at each other to be heard. The day hikers were not joking about the wind. It was going to be a bit of a battle to get through the pass.
I had already chased my hat a couple times, so we took off anything not firmly attached to our bodies or backpacks, tucked our heads down, and began the final stretch to the windswept pass. My mom took the lead with me right on her heels, anxious and a bit nervous about the amazingly strong wind. As we continued up the pass, the gusts became overwhelming. I was having a hard time staying on my feet. I couldn’t hear anything except the roaring of air rushing from one side of the Divide to the other.
With one particularly strong gust, I was swept off my feet and hovered in the air for a moment before dropping back to the ground. The wind rolled me across the rocky slope. I tried to grab anything to anchor myself, but only managed to stir up rocks and dirt, which flew directly into my face and eyes. I couldn’t see, hear or control my own body. By this point I was screaming, terrified by the awesome force of the wind.
I tried to rub the dirt from my eyes and strained to see through grit and tears. Then, I felt my mom’s hand on my arm. I turned to her and realized she was yelling at me, not a foot away, but I couldn’t hear a word. She motioned for me to crawl next to her. I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees, but the wind immediately caught my heavy backpack and rolled me along the ground. My mom inched her way to me again and motioned for me to stay as low as possible. We slowly worked our way through the wind-swept barren pass, army-crawling along the jagged rocks.
On the far side of the pass, the trail steeply dropped and the wind abruptly ceased. Within a couple of feet of elevation change, one would never know there was a howling wind just above, racing along the mountain peaks and passes. Once we were out of the worst gusts and pummeling wind, we took shelter in a small stunted tree grove. We were shocked by the experience we had just made it through. We took stock of our bodies, gear and backpacks, and my mom realized that she no longer had her sunglasses. There was no question in my mind — those sunglasses needed to stay on that pass. I was not going back up there. But my mom was determined. She shed her backpack and slowly started back up the mountain. I watched from my safe, quiet nest of trees as she was buffeted and thrown around by the wind. But, it didn’t take her long and she was back with a huge grin and her sunglasses.
We still had a couple miles to go to reach the end of our trek so we shouldered our packs and continued on our way. We made it out of the backcountry with no more mishaps. The memory of the amazing power of Mother Nature has not left me in 20 years and I continue to share the stories of my Wilderness adventures.
Voices in the Wilderness is written for the Western News by your neighbors and friends in Lincoln County featuring memorable personal experiences in wild places. If you have a tale based in untamed country (it doesn’t have to be local), write for guidelines, or just send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org.