A Snowy Hike…and a Brush with Death (in my dramatic mind)

Even though I am henpecking this post due to injured fingers, I thought it was worth this writing out while still fresh in my mind.

Daniel and I have been going on hikes lately, for anyone who doesn’t know, while increasing weight in our backpacks to increase stamina in preparation for Daniel’s trip to the boundary waters in the fall. This month’s goal was to fit in two 4-mile hikes with 20/30 pounds. Well, it has been snowing almost non-stop, which is highly unusual for Virginia, and Daniel was concerned about going for a hike in the snow and ice. I apparently have more Minnesotan in me than I realized, because I insisted that was just an excuse, and we would be perfectly fine hiking in the snow. We did, however, agree to try a different trail than the mountain we usually hike – a trail closer to us and hopefully less – mountainous.

Everything started out perfectly fine. With some effort, we managed to find the trail we thought we wanted, and set out on our quest for fitness. It was certainly snowy and icy, but a lot flatter than the hike we normally take, so I think we were both pretty pleased. The trails at Ball’s Bluff apparently overlap quite a bit so there was lots of twisting and turning and consulting the trail map as we tried to figure out which way to go. The flat trail became more and more steep and we were both grateful for the myriads of footsteps that had gone before us that allowed us both to see in which direction to go, despite the lack of markers, and gave the trail more traction. It was simply gorgeous, though, and for someone who hates winter, I was beginning to think winter hikes might be my new favorite thing.

At some point, the hills got really steep and we both looked over the edge of the path and shuddered to think what would happen should anyone ever fall. We were a good hour into the hike, bemoaning the fact that our legs hurt and we were barely half through our four miles, which seemed absurd considering how far we felt like we had come, when it happened.

The sun had been going steadily down and though it was still quite light out, it was getting cooler and the snow was getting harder and more icy. One moment, we were following footsteps and the next the footsteps were gone and Daniel had slipped, fallen on his behind, and begun sliding. For the briefest of moments I was ready to laugh and tease him for falling…until I realized he wasn’t stopping. The snow was too crusted over with ice – there was nothing to hold onto, no traction to slow him. As if in slow motion, I watched him hurtle faster and faster to the steep, icy hill below us as I screamed at him to grab something. He flailed for some brush, grasped it, and it tore through his hands even as it flipped him to his stomach; he reached up and, just as he passed under, grabbed a branch and jolted to a stop. My heart skittered as I watched his water bottle fly past him, going past his dangling feet to the hill beyond, so steep I couldn’t even see the water bottle as it descended to running brook at the bottom, and I had images running through my mind of Daniel’s body lying down there if he hadn’t grabbed that branch. Then my stomach twisted as I realized he wasn’t out of danger yet.

One hand clung to the branch while his feet and the other hand, covered in blood, felt desperately for a hold so he could hoist himself up. But there was nothing. The snow was too hard – there was no place to dig in.

“Hang on!” I called. “What can I do?”

“I don’t know.” he grunted as he began pounding the snow with his boots, trying to create a foothold where there was none. I unclasped and took off my giant backpack with the vague thought that if I could get close enough to him, I could use a tree for leverage and toss him one of the straps and haul him up.

“Is there a path under me?” he asked, still clinging with all his might.

I looked closely and sure enough, the path wound narrowly under him.

“Yes,” I said. “You might be able to lower yourself, but be careful or you’ll slip right over it.”

He began kicking his feet again to get a foothold and, with more hope for my backpack plan when there was a path to help me, I sat down so I could inch my way to the path. All it took was a couple of scoots and as surely as if I were on a toboggan, I started sliding. It was both surreal and terrifying at the same time, as though it couldn’t possibly be happening to me even as I began assessing my options.

Surely the flat surface of the path would stop me, my brain reasoned even as I whooshed past Daniel and flew straight over it. I caught a brief glimpse of the icy hill, the scattered trees, and the creek filled with rocks waiting for me below as I grasped some brush. It flipped me over as it tore out of the ground. I spun as I grabbed for first one nonexistent hold, then another, alternately glimpsing the approaching bottom, with all the rocks and brush in the way, the rocks waiting to bash my head in and then watching my scrambling hands trying to save me as I spun yet again. Daniel said something about me hitting a rock and flying a few feet but I don’t remember. Suddenly I was almost at the bottom and there was a tree headed straight for me. I reached out my hands to grab, felt my face smash into it, slid around it and landed face down, half my body in the creek, the other half in the snowbank.

Three thoughts ran through my head simultaneously.

  1. I should be dead.
  2. I should definitely be unconscious.
  3. I would have to go back to the dentist because I doubtless had some broken teeth.

Not going to lie, in that moment, I was most annoyed at the thought of another dentist appointment.

I heard Daniel’s desperate cry from above asking if I was okay and knew I should respond but couldn’t bring myself to move. I laid there, still stunned, my face still in the snow, afraid to move. At his second (or was it third?) call, I forced myself to my knees so he would know I was alive, and fell back down as a wave of dizziness hit me. He yelled again and again I forced myself up and called back with no amount of certainty that I was okay, I felt around my nose and brought my glove back, fully expecting blood. Nothing, but considering how wet I was, I wasn’t sure I would see it anyway. I looked up and was relieved to see Daniel had safely made it to his feet at the top of the hill. I called up, asking if he was okay and he responded that he was. I looked around me, located and grabbed Daniel’s errant water bottle, tried a couple steps, got dizzy, and leaned against the tree that had decided I needed another dentist appointment before gathering my courage and feeling my face again. No moisture, or even pain around my nose. I poked at my teeth and was stunned to realize they seemed as sturdy as ever. I decided at that moment that God had an angel sliding down that hill with me. There was no earthly reason or way for me to be this okay. Accordingly, I shouted back up at Daniel again that I was all right in response to his repeated inquiries, more sure I was telling the truth this time.

Like another miracle, just like that, my head cleared and I could think again. I started to try and find a path back up, and Daniel shouted to me that if I followed the creek, I would hit the red trail and he could meet me there. He just had to figure out how to get my backpack, still above both of us at the spot I had started sliding. I waited for a sign of success before I started walking, and became aware of a throbbing in my finger. I pulled off my glove and grimaced as I saw the nail half torn off and, as if it had just been waiting for an audience, blood began filling up under it. I frowned at it even as I acknowledged how blessed I was, should that be all that was wrong with me, and then felt the finger in my other hand begin hurting. Pretty sure I knew what was coming, I took off the other glove and, sure enough, that nail was also hanging half off. I will say now that it had torn only about a quarter of the way down but it certainly felt like more. Of course, once off, I couldn’t get the soaking wet gloves back on without severe pain, so off they stayed. I then became aware of a developing fat lip and a pain in my side which later examination would prove to be some sort of ice rash- my shirt must have come up while I was sliding and my side got skinned as I slid.

Rather than stand there miserably, I decided to trust that Daniel would get the backpack safely, and begin trekking towards our meeting spot. I realized quickly that if I tried to walk along the snow next to the bank, I would just slide straight in, so I sloshed through the creek itself, figuring I was already wet enough that it wouldn’t matter, and my author’s mind, now that we were both okay, began assessing the best way to fit this scene into a book. I had gotten several feet upstream when I heard another skittering sound behind me. I swung around, and saw my water bottle making its way down the hill to the spot where I had just lain. Daniel was standing at the top, looking down, and rather needlessly called out that he had dropped my water bottle. I probably should have just left it, but I liked that water bottle, and I figured it would take Daniel awhile to get to the meeting spot anyway, so I sloshed back straight through the water, and grabbed it, and then began my trek back again. That was apparently the extent of my hiking boots’ waterproofness because they promptly began filling with water. I reached the meeting spot long before Daniel because he still had to descend the icy hill with two very heavy backpacks, and no path to speak of since it had all iced over. For the next half hour, he chipped holes into the path with the heel of his boot to safely walk, and, on the actual descent, used one of the weights from our bags to pound in handholds in the ice so that he could scoot down safely.

I paced back and forth as I watched him nervously, becoming aware of throbbing in my nose, trying to ignore the sloshing in my boots, and how cold and painful my hands were.

After what seemed a lifetime, he finally made it safely to the bottom with both the packs in tow, and I promptly flew into his arms and started sobbing. He comforted me, telling me how glad he was I was alive, though we didn’t linger too long, because it was cold, and would be getting dark soon, and we still had to figure out our way to the end of the trail in wet clothes.

He pulled out the medical kit that we were wise enough to bring along, and I turned away so I could grimace privately as I finished taking off the partially torn nails, and he then helped me bandage them up. He wiped off the blood on his hand, and I was relieved to see it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had looked. Just some very painful skin lacerations from the brush that had cut through it.

After completing treating our extremely minor wounds considering how dangerous our accidents had been, I pulled on the spare gloves I happened to have in my pocket, and we took off again. It took a considerable effort to keep going because it was becoming increasingly colder and even more icy, if that was possible, but God had His hand around us. We made it to the car in another half hour or so. By then, I couldn’t feel my toes, so Daniel helped me remove my boots and my sopping wet socks, since it turns out it is hard to remove shoes and socks when both your pointer fingers are out of commission, and they warmed up nicely under the car heater.

Finally, we got home, crawled into warm, dry clothes, took ibuprofen, drank some hot chocolate, thanked God for protecting us, agreed on no more winter hikes on steep hills, and sat in front of the fire, watching TV and sipping whiskey the rest of the night.

And that, dear friends, is probably the closest thing to both an adventure and a brush with death I have ever had, and I am still amazed that I appear to have escaped unscathed, other than a quickly healing fat lip, two painful fingers, an incredible amount of bruises, and one very sore nose.

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