Used to be, I would never, ever come out of the backcountry early. Once in high winds my tent pole snapped and I grimly fixed it with adhesive tape from my first aid kit. I've run out of food. A mountain lion once prowled my camp. On a particularly wet and cold trip, I forgot my sleeping bag. But I refused to admit defeat, to slink back to the car.
On Friday, Dana and I headed out to a place neither of us had been--the mysterious and fabled Copper Creek canyon. Our plan was solid: camp at Sky Lake, the next day, hike with a daypack over the pass to Swamp and Steamboat. The weather looked cold but possible: only a twenty percent chance of rain, with a possibility of snow Saturday night. No accumulation was mentioned.
We hiked steadily under heavy packs and in shorts. After five miles we arrived at an exquisite alpine valley. Peaks pierced the calm sky. A lazy river wandered through fields of heather. Large white boulders lay scattered picturesquely about. Onto this scene appeared a couple who had camped there the night before. "The map is wrong!" he proclaimed. He declared that he had been to Sky Lake and it was on the other side of the trail, and a steep talus scramble. There was, he intoned, no place to camp there.
On the basis of this, Dana and I decided to camp in the valley and day hike a little. As we climbed out of the valley and into another small pocket cirque, it became apparent that the man was mistaken. We located Sky Lake easily, in the right place on the map, and went for a short, chilly swim.
Returning to our camp, we noticed a certain chill to the air and donned our down jackets. It was a clear and starry night. The next day we prepared for our day hike. As we did, something opaque and white began to fall from the sky. No worries--it was just supposed to be a dusting, right? We laughed as the snow began to accumulate on our packs and ourselves, but made a valiant effort to continue our hike.
The top of the pass is a moonscape-a barren land of basalt in strange, choppy shapes. Here it was snowing a little harder. The clouds swept in and out. We dropped down a thousand feet to Swamp Lake, nestled in an enclosed valley, and held a hasty conference. Steamboat was only a mile and a half away.
Dana pointed out that if snow started to accumulate it would be hard to find the trail back over the pass. We shivered as we ate our cheese and gorp. The snow fell in a thick curtain. Setting a speedy pace, clad in fleece, rain pants and jackets, we headed back up.
Snow blanketed the trail and was starting to pile up in earnest. Two hours later we reached our campsite. Our tents sagged with snow. We looked at each other. It was one o'clock. We could ride it out in our bags for the next sixteen hours, or we could hike out. Give up. Bail.
We bailed, our tired feet stumbling down the trail. Everyone else was bailing too, including the pistol packing mamas who had claimed another campsite in our valley. It was a mass exodus of campers fleeing the August snow. And it was all right.
This morning I looked up at the mountains, frosted with at least six inches of new snow. It was beautiful to see from below.