Sunday, September 14, 2008

Up, up, and AWAY!: Dog Mt. by dark, part 2

Terror - I need to look up some synonyms, or this will be a boring post.

I had plenty of courage at the bottom of this hill, while on the nice bright trail. I lost it all (and almost my sphincter control) the first time something scrambled away in the brush. This set the tone for the rest of the hike. I wanted to face my fear of darkness, and ended up facing fear itself. The woods in the dark really freaked me out more than I had expected.

I made it up the well-lit portion with no real difficulties, and got to see some really bizarre views of the river by night. Once into the more heavily forested portion of the trail my imagination began to run wild. I started to see people walking on the trail ahead, only to find that they were tricks of the moonlight. The wind was warm and gentle, despite constantly rattling the bones of the trees overhead. What breeze could be felt on the trail didn't cool me down at all but just sent chills down my back and made the rest of me feel clammy. I was completely amped up on adrenaline and sweating profusely.

My imagination also started messing with the sounds around me. Halfway through an especially dark portion of the trail, I heard the creepiest and most bone-chilling noise ever. Panic overrode almost all of my reason and I froze solid. This is obviously my full preparation for the fight or flight that normally follows. As it turns out, it was one of the straps on my backpack that had caught a branch. It's almost too bad it wasn't a monster, because I could probably have crushed it bare-handed with sheer ogre panic strength. I started walking much quieter and more deliberately so I could hear the forest better. It also helped me to avoid the hand-like branches that kept trying to remove my headlamp and poke out my eyes.

At this point I realized that the fear and adrenaline were making my body lie to my brain. On the blank canvas of darkness, my eyes and imagination were painting pictures of stalking creatures and other nocturnal horrors. However, I kept the reins tight and never lit the headlamp or flashlight. My ears heard stalking cats and boogymen coming out of every large patch of shadow. I got a grip on myself, mostly by whispering lies to my ego about being the most dangerous creature in the forest. Hah! I'd be lunch for a sneaky kitty, for sure.

Another difficulty I had also encountered on Angel's Rest: The moon is sometimes TOO bright! It puts everything into a high contrast and it overloads the cones and rods when you switch between the shadows and the exposed areas too often. I had the best times hiking when I could stay in the murky dark or the bright moonlight for longer periods to allow my vision to adjust. Right before the trail opened out onto the hillside, I had an owl launch from a tree just a few feet from my head. Once again, total body malfunction with sphincter control barely retained. Freezing up doesn't strike me as very helpful in these situations, but I can't figure out a conscious mechanism for controlling this reaction.

Here is the trip from the parking lot: I took the shorter and steeper trail towards the top. At the hard or harder fork, I went right so that I could hit the lookout point. It adds 0.4 miles, but is more open and less steep. Once the trails hit the second lookout point, I took the exposed route to the summit so I didn't have to hike the trees around the backside of the hill. It also saves 0.2 miles. However, this part of the trail has significant exposure and it was not at all lessened by the lower light levels. Exposure is still exposure and I could still see the tree line hundreds of feet down the slope where a body would fetch up if they tripped off the trail. I didn't get vertigo too bad this time, thanks to the addition of electrolytes and sugars to my drinking mixture. Plus, I don't think I had any adrenaline remaining in my glands by that point.

I sat at the top for about 30 minutes, staring at the river and Wind Mountain. Another 300 calories went down the hatch as fuel for the descent. A very slight mist began to coalesce in the air, more pronounced toward the river. It didn't affect my visibility, and it may have helped diffuse the moonlight. I finished my snack and checked in with my safety backup before starting back down the hill.

If you go: Be familiar with the trail. Imagine hiking it in the dark as you are climbing up the hill. It won't help once you are actually out there in the dark, but it's an interesting exercise regardless... All of the trails on the way up were well-maintained and pretty familiar to me since I've hiked this mountain a few times. There are a few slightly narrow parts where the big-leafed plants were trying to spread into my hiking space. The damp area right after the fork to "hard" is really dark, with lots of good bog noises to creep you out. This is the only spot where I considered using a light. Above all, don't panic. There isn't anywhere to run anyway.

This ascent was hard for me. I'm glad I made it without resorting to artificial light. I am also pleased I didn't have a panic attack, a heart attack, or loss of voluntary control over certain bodily functions. Despite my relative pleasure at the successful climb, I'm done with night hiking for a while. Probably a LONG while.

The descent will go up once I wrap up my current battle with the laundry monster.

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