The Story of How I Almost Died: Soloing the Stein Traverse.

After many months, a $1000 Hard Drive recovery job, and much hand wringing, I am ready to bring you a tale of adventure and tribulation, of damaged equipment and gross ill-preparation. This is the detailed version of my earlier post, Musings on Rights of Passage..

In September 2014 I attempted a trip which had been in preparation for years: a solo through hike of the 100km Stein Traverse. Gear was purchased and tested, the body was prepared, courses on mountaineering had been taken. Most people take 10 days or more to do the trail, I planned on twelve so I could really savour the experience and find myself. I thought I was prepared, I came out in six.

Friday: night found me camping on a creepy logging road, blissfully unaware of the true nature of what lay ahead of me. Overconfident, I slept the night away and broke camp the next morning with snacks on the trail instead of breakfast, this would become a trend as the situation deteriorated.

By 6am Saturday: I was slogging up a logging road which had been abandoned for nearly fifteen years. VOC had not cleared the brush since 2010, which meant I spent the day forcing my way through soaking wet alder, and soaking myself to the bone. The failing of waterproofing on some items should have been a red alert to abort, as well as my loss of my sole bear bell two hours into the trail. I arrived at Lizzie Lake wet, changed socks and wrung things out while eating lunch, and resolved to make it to the cabin that afternoon as the abandoned forest service camp at Lizzie was one of the creepiest places I have ever been. As I was leaving, I noticed a shredded bag of trash hanging from a tree, with a torn up hiking shoe further up the trail. It had taken 4.5 hours to get this far.

Abandoned Road

I arrived at Lizzie Cabin around 1pm, boots and socks soaked and my clothes not much better. Set about drying things on the porch as the sun peeked out between bouts of rain. The cabin had logs dating all the way back to its construction in the 1970’s, including such highlights as a visit from Billy Joel and lots of high-tension exchanges between hippies and loggers. Later in the afternoon another hiker, Ian, arrived and we fired up the stove to dry things and keep warm for the night. It was quite cozy, I would gladly return to spend some time in that valley.

Sunday: morning arrived cold and wet. We restocked the wood we’d used up and parted ways, him to civilization and myself to the alpine. A light drizzle soon ended, and after an accidental detour on the wrong trail, I was on my way over the first ridge with my goal for the night as Caltha lake. Several hours in, after traversing terrain that was pretty much the inspiration for Skyrim, I arrived at the entrance to Cherry Pip pass below Tabletop Mountain. Due to low cloud visibility was around 5 feet at best, and some joker had been building false cairns all over the place. I lost about forty minutes finding the trail.

Heart Lake

As I gained the ridge that would take me to Caltha, I felt the ground shaking vigorously beneath my feet and heard what sounded like the ocean crashing over my head. Looking back, I saw what amounted to the entire backside of Anemone Mountain sliding off and covering an ice field. Boulders the size of trucks. I was reminded of Ian mentioning that when he had been climbing this week, he had seen Long Peak shedding boulders the size of houses regularly, and that all the mountains in the region appeared very rotten. I had considered scrambling up Anemone on my way past, but shied away due to the low cloud. Had it been clear, I would have attempted the climb and very likely died.

Anemone Slide

I finished descending Cherry Pip Pass and arrived at Caltha Lake around 4pm. It would likely have been beautiful, had the cloud cover not been twenty feet up and drizzling. Had a hot dinner, buried my food bag under rocks, and passed out before 6pm. Slept like a rock, though it was very very cold due to the winds.

Caltha Lake

Monday: morning found me again up at dawn, packed, and with a hot meal in my stomach I headed for Tundra Lake. This is where things started to go bad. There is only one way around Tundra, hopping through a boulder field that has become very active. As soon as I reached the lake, I could hear rocks crumbling in the distance, though there was absolutely zero visibility. Tundra Lake sits in a caldera, with mountains on two sides and sheer rock walls 3/4 of the way around, all of which act to trap cloud like a whirlpool. Rain started, heavily, and it took me until 2pm to reach the far end of the lake and what I thought was the campsite down on a forlorn pile of rock. I wanted to continue on to Puppet Lake, since it was early, but the rain was pushing my gear to the limit and I was unaware that BC Parks had moved the campside since my guidebook was written.

Tundra Lake

Tundra camp was, ten years ago, located up on the very sheltered ridge at the end of the lake. Why they moved it down to that pile of rocks is a mystery, but it nearly killed me. In the heavy cloud and rain, I stumbled around the ridge for hours trying to find the trail before admitting defeat and going back to the new campground. Ate a hot meal, set my tent up, and got into my few remaining dry clothes. The wind and rain did not let up, and something awoke me in the darkness when it set off a small rockslide on the hill behind me. Morale was low.

Tuesday: Morning dawned and the storm was still bad. I attempted to pack up but was soaked in seconds, and so retreated to the tent. I lay there for four hours, wondering if this was how I would end, and really understanding that the $250 price of a single-use emergency beacon was probably less valuable than my life. I studied the map for some time and eventually realized that the campground had been moved, resulting in my confusion the day before. Around 10:30 there was a brief break in the weather, and in five minutes I packed everything and headed out. Found the massive cairn I’d missed in the thick fog on Monday, and was on my way to the ridge.

Before gaining the ridge, I crossed the most terrifying boulder field I have ever seen. Everything was fresh, very fresh, raw rock glistening all around me. Above, through breaks in the cloud, I could see enourmous slabs of rock, fractured and waiting to let go and crush me. For the first time in the trip I found myself praying that the cloud would remain thick and heavy, lest the sun thermal shock those cracks and bring the mountain down on top of me.

Ridge to Stein Lake

The ridge, I’m sure, would be stunning on a nice day. Instead I was treated to periods of zero visibility and hail, while navigating a knife edge barely wider than a sidewalk with a 5000′ sheer drop on either side. Some hours later, I began the 1000m descent to Stein Lake, switchbacking into dense rainforest. Everything was soaked, my clothes, my pack, my boots, all waterproofing had failed. I beat myself through the forest following what looked like fresh boot prints, driving myself with the hope that there would be someone at the lake with a SAR beacon that I could buy from them. Instead I came to a flooded campsite, shadowed and creepy. A bear locker full of abandoned coleman gear, and I found myself well into experiencing Hypothermia. Shaking uncontrollably with my hands going blue, I set my tent up on the helicopter pad and tossed my food bag into a slash pile. It was too wet to cook, and it was a very good thing that I did not. I crawled into a wet bag, put on my single dry pair of socks and long-johns, put on my other wet woolen layers, and tried to warm up. Around 7pm, something broke a tree like a gunshot about twenty feet away. It was then that I realized that I was probably going to die, either of exposure or a bear attack, and my body would not be found for a week when I became overdue. I could do nothing but rest and stare my own mortality in the face, realizing I was a very, very, very stupid boy. I thought of the things I would never see again, and fell into a fitful rest.

Had I been using synthetic clothing, rather than 100% wool layers, I would have died during the night as they provide zero insulation when damp. This is the only reason that I am alive to tell this story.

Wednesday: Somehow I was alive. The clouds had broken, there was sunshine. Everything was soaking wet still, but I was ALIVE. Did not want to risk hot breakfast after the previous nights visitor, resolved to get out of this godforsaken valley as fast as I could. If the Stein was a test, I’d failed it and it was time to go. Putting on all three pairs of soaked socks, and boots with blown out seams, I tossed my pack on and hit the trail. Lost a glove in a stream about an hour later. By 1pm it was gloriously hot for the first time in four days, and things were drying out. I did 20km in 8 hours, rolled into Logjam Camp in the late afternoon, and set everything out to dry. Had a huuuuge meal to make up for barely eating for two days, and settled down to rest. At 7pm, something broke a tree like a gunshot just outside the camp.

Thursday: Awoke to a clear blue sky. Ate breakfast, rolled out of camp by 7am. When clipping my bear spray to my belt, I did not actually put the carabiner on my belt, and did not hear it drop to the soft ground. An hour later, while in the middle of a creepy burned out section filled with alder, I noticed my loss. Tired of singing nonsense, I strung my cooking pots together onto my walking stick, a ghetto bear bell. My goal for the day was the “secret” private cabin at Ponderosa Camp, but unable to find it and it only being 12pm, I pressed on to Lower Crossing instead. This was a mistake. The day was 25km, and I arrived at the camp just after 6pm, utterly destroyed and barely able to move. I spent most of the day on autopilot, and have very little recollection of that stretch of the trail as a result. A push like that, I will never attempt again, my legs were cramping up and seizing whenever I tried to lay down. After dinner, around 7pm as I was settling down, something breaks a tree on the other side of the river and pushes it in. Beyond coincidence now, I conclude that I have been stalked by something which has the ability to operate the multiple cable cars I have crossed since Stein Lake. Oh well, nothing I could do except sleep holding my Mora and a bear banger!

Cottonwood Falls

Friday: Hit the trail at 7am. By the time I reached the pictographs, I was delirious and exhausted beyond measure. Standing beneath a cliff and seeing a thousand years of art stretch out to either side of you, in that condition, was a sensation I will never forget and cannot put into words. It moved me to tears.

More Petroglyphs

1pm saw me at the trailhead, walking down the road to Lytton and baking in 40* with no shade and little water. A tremendous irony, I thought, if I were to collapse from heat stroke two days after nearly dying of hypothermia. Thankfully a native couple pulled up and gave me a ride into town in the bed of their truck. Wandered around the farmers market, bought some honey, phoned home, and killed time till the greyhound arrived. Rather than twelve days, I’d taken a mere six and a half.

The lower valley, from Stein Lake to Lower Crossing, is like nothing I have ever experienced. It was never logged, never had a road driven through. The only modification was a mule trail and several thousand years of habitation by First Nations. There is a sensation of life in that valley, of a sort of interconnection, that I have never felt before when hiking in second growth. Even the burnt out sections felt vibrant. It’s almost impossible to explain, and something that needs to be experienced in person.

Tl;DR: Inclement Weather Can Kill You Fast, Dumbass.

More pictures can be found on my Flickr:

2 thoughts on “The Story of How I Almost Died: Soloing the Stein Traverse.

  1. Wilson Reply

    Damn, son…

  2. Cosmic Turtle Reply

    Well, you made it out alive and have a good story to tell! Thanks for sharing. Check out my Stein video on youtube as I’m sure you’d enjoy it. Take er’ easy!

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