“To go where no man has gone before…”
…because that’s how you feel when the trail disappears beneath a snowpack hundreds of miles long and everything looks the same in front of you.
Anyone can walk an established trail, path, or roadway, even those with obstacles, because you know that, if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll get where you want to go.
This is the easy mindset of the day-hiker and backpacker. Just follow the 20-inch-wide dirt trail, don’t trip over any roots and rocks, know where you’re going in general, and definitely watch for forks in the way. Pretty basic.
Once the trail stops, we feel on our own, alone, and potentially lost. Just having a trail there to follow, something made by people who you know knew where they were going enough to build the thing, is reassuring.
On my PCT thru-hike in 1974, before large sections were ever built, and only having a vague concept of where the proposed trail was to go, after weeks on snow, I began to feel all alone.
There were to come, over the next 4 months of snow-hiking toward Canada, many times where I ached for a “sign of man,” as I called anything made by a person standing where I might have been, a cut branch or log, a blaze in the bark of a tree, a trail sign, a building sticking up out of the snow.
When there is no visible trail to follow, is there no viable route to take forward?
The backpacker needs a trail, but the long-distance thru-hiker knows there will be times and distances where the trail they thoughtlessly strolled for the last few weeks will disappear and be gone from sight for the next few weeks.
When the trail disappears or ends, it means that your knowledge, experience, and skills will have to make up the difference in the confidence and safety you put into following an established trail to, now, going “where no man has gone before.”
There are no footprints in the snow before you, as you stand bewildered and changing mental gears on the last patch of dry dirt at the edge of white snow everywhere.
Which way is the correct way?
There is, I firmly believe, a maturing that occurs to the backpacker when faced with the unknown, where they have to dig deep for past understanding, experience, and skills in order to try and move forward.
Efforts will be challenged and techniques tested, but the resilient will prevail unto a whole new realm of wilderness savvy that I have to call, “general mountaineering.”
This year, atmospheric river after atmospheric river dumped record amounts of snow everywhere in California, even on some beaches next to the Pacific Ocean, that will not thaw out quick enough to meet our scheduled summer hikes in the Sierra High country.
So, while the trails above snowline are covered and hidden from sight this spring and summer, backpackers will have to know when to turn around, thru-hikers will have to question whether they have the knowledge, skills, and experience to venture, hesitatingly, forward, while those with a mountaineer’s savvy will step up, off the easy dirt trail, and onto the great, white “route” to inquire of their maps, test possibilities, and explore the mountainous valleys and ridges, all to go where no man has gone before!
When there is no trail, you are not lost.
When you are aware of the hazards and are able to identify them, there is always a route, yet undiscovered, around them.
It may not be convenient nor easy, but such are the lessons of the wilderness wanderer, tested in humble caution, remembered after every trial, enjoyed with the sojourners, unto the earned confidence and security of the general mountaineer.
Mountaineering embodies an attitude of wilderness respect that dictates whether you should step out onto the snow, at all, followed by an earned wisdom from challenges fraught that directs you how, where, and why to step.
With the deep snow and coming raging creeks facing all hikers well into 2023, everyone, from backpacker to mountaineer, will have to recognize and admit that these uncharacteristic summertime hazards may be beyond their knowledge, skill, and experience levels, then ask themselves, “Do I have what it takes to be safe, secure, and wise in such challenges, for my party as well as myself, or should I refrain from the unknown routes and seek lower, safer trails this summer?”