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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tom, Field and Willey, Jan. 31, 2010, winter 4Ks #11, 12, & 13

Avalon, A-Z, Mt. Tom Spur, Willey Range, and Ethan Pond Trails.

8.5 miles.

Cold as it was, this one started out well enough. Alex and I were happy to have MadRiver with us today, we always enjoy his company. We began our hike in good spirits...I'll let the pictures do the positive talking and save the words for that last bit of the hike...the bit where Mama messed up bigtime.

The good stuff:

And now, the bad part:

We stood at the outlook on Willey and congratulated ourselves for successfully ascending all three of today's targeted peaks. As we finished up our snacks, we heard the voices of a friendly couple. They had just come up Willey via the ladder section, the very section we were about to descend. We chatted amicably, then I told them thanks in advance for their assistance on the way down, since they'd probably come upon us sprawled in the snow under one of the steeps. At the time, I didn't realize I was actually predicting the future...

I'd been down the ladder section in the winter before (last January). I well remembered the steep and tricky bits -- at least, I thought I did -- and I told Alex to get behind me and crab-walk. This method worked well. I'd dig in my microspiked heels and slowly inch my way down, never sliding for more than a second, and even then not too quickly. Alex sometimes slid, but she'd run into my back. There were sections where it was okay to buttslide with abandon, which we happily did. After what seemed liked an eternity, I thought the coast was clear, that we were past all the frightening sections. Alex asked if she could go ahead of me and use the new "buttsled" we had brought along. This was our very first hike using a sled, and she had loved using this little piece of plastic during our descent of Tom and Field. Obviously, I had told her she couldn't use it on Willey, at least not until we were finished with the ladders. Which I thought we now were.

Unfortunately, we weren't.

Looking back, I have no idea how or why I let Alex go ahead. I've now accompanied my oldest daughter up and down 58 4K peaks, and on each one of them I have been hyper-vigilant with her safety. I've been 100% on top of things regarding our peakbagging adventures. Except for this one time, when I handed my daughter her little sled and sent her off ahead of me.

It only takes one mistake to turn things sour fast. Luckily, our outcome was a positive one. But it might not have been, and believe me, the thought of what might have been will haunt me for the rest of my life.

Alex happily plopped on her sled, turned a bend, and sailed right over the last section of ladders at the speed of light. After what I'm guessing was about 3 or 4 seconds of extremely fast sledding, she stopped by falling over and running her chest and arm into a tree. I did not see this happen, I was a few steps behind her on the trail. I arrived in time to see her sit up.

She looked up at me and begged me not to buttslide down, she was afraid I would spin out of control, as she had. I moved slowly toward her, since she became hysterical any time I tried to speed up my pace. She was frightened for my safety, the sweet, dear child. As I made my way to her, I asked her about pain (there was none), about where she landed, I asked her if she had hit her head (no). When I finally reached her, I did a "chunk check" and thankfully found that she was not hurt, save for a small scratch on her side. I looked into her eyes and apologized to her, telling her it was all my fault and I was so, so sorry. I also assured her, promised her, that I would never, ever allow this to happen again.

Though she was physically okay, emotionally, she was an understandable wreck. She told me she had gone over the top before even realizing the drop was there. For a second, she thought she had fallen off a cliff. It had been a terribly frightening experience for her.

MadRiver arrived at the top and began to make his way down on crampons. Alex became frightened for him, just as she had been frightened for me. Unfortunately, MadRiver began to slide...he spared himself an out-of-control descent by hooking one leg around a tree. This tactic worked...kind of. Instead of flying down the trail, he ended up hanging upside-down. Though MadRiver was not hurt, but rather jovial about his predicament, Alex was worried nonetheless and burst into a fresh round of tears.

Just then, the couple we met on Willey's summit appeared. The man un-stuck MadRiver, then came to help me with Alex. My daughter was extremely shaken and it took a lot of coaxing before she was willing to get back into a sitting position on the trail. We still needed to get down a very short, steep section -- normally, we could have descended it without much ado. However, Alex no longer wanted to slide even one tiny, little bit. I had her get behind me, then I inched downward, assisted by the kind man and MadRiver. We made sure that Alex and I did not slide quickly, as the poor kid's nerves could no longer handle any fast movements.

Words cannot express how grateful I am to the young couple who assisted us. Both the man and the woman spoke to Alex soothingly, telling her how brave she was, talking to her in gentle tones. If they ever happen to read this -- thank you. You told me your names, but in my preoccupation with Alex I forgot them. I hope someday, under much better circumstances, we meet again.

Alex did eventually calm down and turn back into her usual self, but it took about forty minutes for the transformation to occur. By the time we were at the Ethan Pond Trail, she was displaying her normal descent behavior, running, jumping, wanting me to take photos, laughing, etc.

We came to the steep part just before the railroad tracks...and she asked for her sled (I did not give it to her).

Interesting day. Glad it all turned out well. I am extremely aware that things could have been very, very different. You can't make mistakes out here, of any magnitude. You just can't.

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