Four Winds 2002
Day 8 - Zombie-like, we hike up the trail to 9700’ Strawberry Peak. We pass Team Pine Nuts, huddled in the trees out of the wind. We’re struggling in the early morning hours between 2 and 5 AM. The sleep monster is on our shoulder and we’re nearly falling over in our tracks. All we need to do is keep hanging in until the sun rises and everything will feel different. Near 6 AM, we can see the trail and we also begin to brighten up. The higher the sun, the higher our energy. But, on one hour of sleep in the past 35, there is a limit to our enthusiasm.
With a close eye on the map, we follow a road west out of the valley, continuing on the Great Western Trail. We’re moving into another canyon getting ready to climb the trail, when the trail forks. According to the map, the trail heads straight down the middle of the canyon and climbs the right side of the end of the canyon to meet our trail. Although the Great Western Trail splits to the right, I choose straight and the team follows. Reading our position on the map I’m seeing everything as expected. I’ve also got this eerie déjà vu feeling that I’ve been in this exact canyon before and have chosen this route before. It seems so real and I only wish I knew how the trail turned out.
The dream version likely turns out better because this one isn't what we hoped for. Our trail has disappeared after 300’ of bushwhacking up the back of the canyon. I admit defeat and apologize for the mistake, and for ultimately wasting an hour of precious time. Going into this canyon, our navigation had been flawless and I'm particularly upset at this breakdown in discipline. We had watched Team Pine Nuts follow the Great Western Trail to the right and in a moment of pride and overconfidence, I thought we could use the map to outsmart them. I was wrong and we all had to pay the price. We make our way back to the correct trail and begin the 10-mile trek to our next and what is expected to be the final obstacle, Shingle Mill Canyon.
My hallucinations begin along the Great Western Trail. We come around a corner and I see a man sitting under a shade tree wearing a sombrero. He is in the shadows, so I can’t make out any features, but I notice that he has a young boy with him.
We reach Windy Pass, a saddle between two mountains and the point at which we will begin our descent to Shingle Mill Canyon and our final climb of the race. Here at 9000’ I find a sign pointing to water. This time I’m not seeing things. I hike 100 yards down the mountain to find a horse corral. Dreaming of a sparkling clear stream, I instead find a fly-infested horse trough with 3 inches of water covering a layer of mud. There’s a black pipe slowly dripping water into the trough from a mysterious underground source. I hold my bladder under the dripping pipe and patiently wait. After about 5 minutes, I’ve got a liter and decide that will do. I get back to the top and Danny asks about the water. “It’s great…if you’re a horse”, I reply, as I repack my backpack.
The sun is fading quickly and I’m anxious to get to the bottom of the canyon and find our trailhead before dark. While the rest of the team finishes their food, I head out and run down the trail, losing 1400’ of elevation over the two-mile rock-strewn trail. I reach the bottom and find the trailhead just as the last rays of sunshine are left. I wait for the team, believing that they are close behind. Fifteen minutes pass and I grow concerned. It’s dark now and I don’t see headlamps or hear voices. Where can they be? I eat while watching the field mice chase scraps of food. The hallucinations begin again and I imagine a family of mice, huddled together with their little arms wrapped around each other in a hug, shivering in the cold. I stare as they stare back. I finally decide that they are just leaves.
Forty minutes have passed and I am shaken by the sound of a whistle. Is someone hurt? I get up and quickly start to climb the trail yelling my teammates names. I see headlamps and hear their voices. They’re coming and everyone’s OK, just moving slowly.
From the bottom of Shingle Mill Canyon, we need to climb to 10,000’, a 2400’ rise. There’s a reference point on the right side of the canyon that we need to work toward as the trail wanders around the field, randomly appearing and disappearing. It's getting steeper and it's so dark that we can’t tell if we’re on the right or left side of the canyon. A couple hundred feet up the trail takes a turn to the right, but the canyon walls still suggest we’re on the left side. We reach the riverbed, but it’s on our right side, as we’re drifting left. We're all twisted around and I’ve got that strange déjà vu feeling again. I know that I've been in this canyon at night before. I remember everything. The way the trail moves, the dry riverbed splitting into a Y, the steepness of the terrain, the rousting of sleeping wildlife, and the feeling that this is not going our way.
We keep climbing, leading left. At 8400’ the trail ends. We need to be on the right. I believe that were on the left. Tom thinks we're on the right.