Regardless, I was determined. Really, how hard could it be? The lake was only a mile and a half from the trail. It did climb over 2,400 feet, but still... "I'll be back in four hours," I said breezily.
Fresh snow iced the mountains and big clouds billowed like sheets left on the line. It was the first day I had seen sunshine in a long while. The aspens were turning a delicate shade of yellow. I took the first three miles on the trail fast, passing nobody.
Deadman Lake's outlet tumbles over rocky cliffs, dives into small pools carved out by water and time, and finally ends up surrendering to Hurricane Creek far below. It is a place of avalanches. It is forbiddingly steep.
Unsure of how close I could stay to the creek, I erred on the side of caution and traveled far to the right. Too far. I was stuck in a cliff band with no way out. This was the end, I thought.
And there was snow. Slippery snow that covered the rocks, snow that made me slide and fall. This was September? You gave it your best shot, I told myself. No harm in turning back.
I started picking my way down the mountain in full retreat, when I noticed a possible route around the cliffs and onto a snowy plateau. I'll just go up here a short ways, I thought. See what happens.
You can probably guess what happened next. Sheer stubbornness propelled me forward, up crumbly cliffs and ice-covered rocks and knee-deep snow. I slogged onward, afraid to look at my watch and unwilling to turn back. Clawing my way up a final cliff, I finally saw my Holy Grail:
A wintery wind made me dig in my pack for a hat and mittens. Snow pelted my face. Snow packed inside my boots. The lake's surface was ruffled with whitecaps. It looked like nobody had been here, ever. It was totally worth it.
I'll spare you the heart-clenching trip down, the moment of panic at being cliffed out, again, and having to climb back up. Wondering, for just one second, if I had made a crucial mistake. In the end, it all worked out. Now I can be one of those who have visited this fabled lake. I can sigh mysteriously and give a murky description of the route.
On the way out I passed a hopeful set of backpackers, clad in tennis shoes. "We're going to climb the Matterhorn!" they chorused.
"Well..." I was reluctant to tell them they wouldn't make it. Who am I to shatter dreams? Somebody could have told me that getting to Deadman Lake would be a horrific snowy slog. Would I have listened? Probably not.
"Good luck," I ended up saying. My four hour tour ended up taking eight hours. J was loading up a pack to come find me, and the words "Search and Rescue" were mentioned. I cringed in horror. Maybe this hike wasn't the smartest to do solo. Maybe I should have waited for summer, when the route might be clearer. There are times when my enthusiasm for adventure lures me into situations where prudent people might turn around. But it's always been worth it.
It's been snowing for days now, up near Deadman Lake. I don't think anyone else will make it there this year. In fact, probably less than ten people go there on any given year. Maybe less than that. I'm happy about that. I'm happy that there are places this wild, this hard to get to.