Dealing with Disappointment in the Great Outdoors

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As anyone who spends time outdoors knows, things don't always go as planned when you're playing in the mountains. But there's always something to be learned. 

I’ve had my fair share of misadventures in the mountains. There’s that time we went backpacking two years ago in the North Cascades and watched the nearby horizon go up in flames. We wondered all night if our campsite would burn next. The time last fall when it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit and my toes almost froze in a wet pair of wool socks after crossing a river in the Rockies. Or that one spring weekend when I tripped while hiking on the local trail in the Front Range and had to get eight stitches in my knee.

What disappointing days lack in belly laughs and high fives, they make up for in lessons learned and tales of adventure. This is the one that I tell most often.

The plan was to hike my very first Colorado fourteener, Mount Belford, one of the state’s 54 peaks that top 14,000 feet in elevation. As a mountain biker, the thought of ascending on my own two feet to that height was nothing short of daunting. I was excited, a little uncertain, and only somewhat dreading the 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. But mostly excited.

My friend, Erik, and I camped out the night before on one of my favorite backroads near Independence Pass. You know the kind—the sort of road you need a good set of tires and suspension to reach. We’d had a late start, so by the time we rolled into the dispersed campsite, darkness greeted us. Erik ran the lights on his car while we set up the tent. By the time we wrestled it into shape, not five minutes later, the lights had turned off. By themselves.

The next 45 minutes were nothing short of frantic. We hurriedly trekked to the nearest campsite to ask our neighbors for a jump (we paid them with our only six-pack of craft beer, a disappointment in itself), crossed our fingers and waited for the turn of the engine. Nothing. All you could hear was the sound of the resident crickets and the intermittent snap of a twig in the dark.

We resigned ourselves to the reality of the situation: With no cell service and no easy way out in the morning, there would be no hike. A sinking feeling settled into the pit of my stomach. Plain and simple, this sucked. As I drifted off to sleep at 9,700 feet, I wondered what the air would’ve felt like at around 14,200.

That evening in camp, after realizing we didn't have to set an alarm clock. (Photo Credit: Whitney James)

The next morning we slept in, with no concern other than finding a ride to downtown Aspen and getting cell service to call our dads. The verdict? A dead battery. As luck would have it, the local hardware store sold not only shower curtains, shotguns and fishing licenses, but also the exact car battery we required. We hitched a ride back to the car, where Erik got to work beneath the hood. All went well aside from the terminal connector splitting in half, which I jerry-rigged back together with spare climbing tape, and we were ready to take control of our weekend once again.

To celebrate our success, I suggested we go cliff jumping at Devil’s Punchbowl, a swimming hole just a few miles down the road. Erik was all in.

Replacing a car battery

Replacing a car battery for the first time. (Photo Credit: Whitney James)

The first jump went off without a hitch. Smiles, goosebumps, a scattered applause from the other adventure seekers on a Saturday afternoon. The second jump was from a higher spot—one where you had to get a running start and jump over the edge without a direct line of sight to the narrow pool of water below. Another splash, more impressed claps, and then from my perch on a lower outcropping I realized what had happened.

Devil’s Punchbowl jump

The fateful jump into Devil’s Punchbowl on Independence Pass. (Photo Credit: Whitney James)

As Erik came out of the water, he was clutching his left leg just below the knee. He yelled something over the roar of the river. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the message was clear—he needed immediate help. I enlisted the assistance of a couple of guys to help Erik scramble out of the river, and with only a general idea of where the Aspen emergency room was, we sped off down the mountain. I didn’t even notice it was my favorite time of day—golden hour, when the sun lights up the aspen trees just right—because I was too focused on my passenger, whose tibia shone white as the moon through a gash in his shin.

From a local's perspective, it’s no surprise we had an accident at Devil’s Punchbowl. A stealthily submerged rock eats up many tourists each summer. But I had watched dozens of successful jumps at this spot and was unaware of the infamous boulder lurking below the surface.

All of these events happening in the span of 24 hours was nothing short of distressing. My adrenal glands were tapped, my stomach empty for lack of food, my hands and voice shaky. I didn’t know it then but it would take me a couple of months to fully process the highs and lows of the day—the hope of standing in the dark waiting for the engine to turn over, the sadness I felt realizing I wouldn’t hike my first fourteener, the achievement of having fixed a battery in the most unlikely of circumstances and, finally, the devastation of seeing my friend in agony, hunched over in the middle of a river yelling for help.

Erik’s injury was ultimately a mere blip in an otherwise blissful summer spent in the mountains. His recovery wasn't painless, but at least it was quick. Since then, he has tacked quite a few fourteeners onto his recreational résumé.

Years later, the disappointment I felt that day has faded. It's a story I find myself telling around a campfire with a laugh and a shake of my head. But I'm aware that this won't be my last misadventure outdoors. I still haven't summited a peak of any impressive size, but I know when I finally do, I'll be better prepared. Accidents happen and there are always variables you can't fully control. The next time I’m met with unexpected setbacks in the great outdoors, I’ll trust in my ability to problem solve and handle painful or even scary situations with confidence and grit. Even if all I have on hand is some climbing tape.

 

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