I am a conservative hiker who is deeply respectful of nature. I carry an emergency kit every time, no matter how short the hike, as well as a map, a whistle–all of the 10 essentials, always. If you day hike with me in Virginia between September and May, odds are I will be carrying an extra space blanket and food for you, even if you also brought your own. No one dies of hypothermia or starvation on my watch!
Nature, however, is always ready to humble us. Recently I made plans to stop overnight with a friend near Buffalo, NY while en route to a wedding in Ontario, in order to hike to the Eternal Flame Falls. This short hike has been on my bucket list for a while–there is a natural gas leak behind the falls that fuels a flickering flame (“Eternal” is a wee bit of romanticism, as apparently it needs to be re-lit from time to time). The hike is just 2 miles round-trip, down into a small gorge and back up.
The forecast was for rain and a 50-degree day, and we were ready for it. We had all the requisite rain gear, including waterproof matches in case the flame had gone out. As it turned out, not a single raindrop fell and we had a different challenge entirely–ice. In our excitement about the hike, and the rest of our trip, and the long-overdue arrival of SPRING, we hadn’t even considered that possibility. In retrospect, it’s pretty embarrassing. As soon as we arrived we saw instantly how poorly we had planned: the trail was a narrow river of ice and we had no crampons. However, there was fresh snow with plenty of traction on the edges of the trail, so we decided to try walking on the snow. It was a short hike, after all, and we had come so far…….
Things went fine for 20 minutes or so as we switchbacked down into the gorge. When we reached the bottom, though, the trail narrowed as it followed a small river. It soon became evident we were out of snow on which to walk. The river flowed to our right, and the gorge wall loomed above us to the left. We couldn’t safely travel any further on the icy path, and we knew we had to turn around.
The moment of disappointment was brief; we both value logical thinking and staying alive quite highly. However, logical thinking is often refined via trial and error, and our mistakes weren’t quite over for the day. As we contemplated trudging back up those switchbacks through several inches of snow, that rocky gorge wall, with just enough crunchy snow to assist in hand-over-hand climbing, started to look like an appealing alternative. We gave it a go, and made good progress for a bit–till we confronted a patch of ice. While we paused to consider our approach, I lost my footing and slid nearly all the way down the distance we had climbed. The gorge wall was at about a 60-degree angle in this spot, not vertical, so it was a slow slide back down almost to the trail. My companion followed behind me soon after. Not a high-danger situation, but pretty demoralizing nonetheless–we were tired, cold, and dirty by this point.
Chastened, we turned back down the trail for a bit until the gorge wall became somewhat less steep and we became tempted once again. This time, slowly but steadily and with intense effort (hooray for upper-body yoga muscles!) we made it out of the gorge. Standing near its edge after the climb, we could just barely hear the roar of the falls taunting us from a short distance away.
I like to think I don’t take nature for granted, and I did have all 10 essentials in my pack that day, but I can’t help but wonder if I unconsciously wrote off some degree of potential danger based on the fact that it was such a short hike on an extremely popular trail, in a county park right on a major road. I will never try an icy trail like that again without crampons, which would have made it much easier to hike back out rather than climb out hand over hand. As penance, I will also re-read at least 10 stories on Hiker Hell: http://www.hikerhell.com/.
The falls eluded us that day and we pressed on to the border, where we stopped at Niagara Falls as a consolation prize: