With a shout, rustling tumbles, and crashing, I turned quickly in the saddle to look behind me. The sight I saw was not what I ever expected to see.
Mark’s pack horse was tumbling over and over down the steep left slope. Over and over she went through the rhodo and shrubs. She bounced off trees, stalling at some, only to struggle to rise and tumble down further.
Confusion, fear, and shouting followed.
My adrenaline immediately sky-rocketed. My hands tightened on my reins and my left spur crept into Will’s side to encourage him to not take any foul steps in the down hill direction. In heightened fear of him falling I recognized that I needed to calm myself if I wanted to prevent him from becoming upset. I had no idea how he and the other animals would react to one of their own taking such a huge fall – one that may be ending in fatal injury.
Hov shouted for me to continue to a place to better secure our animals. I moved forward several hundred feet. The trail didn’t improve. The best I could do was a place with some large trees blocking a fall from the downhill side. I dismounted and stood on the uphill. Hov dismounted and secured his animals and walked back to help. Missy dismounted behind him and waited with me.
We could hear raised voices, the rustle and cracking of vegetation and frightened whinnies from behind us around a slight curve in the trail.
Missy and I talked quietly. Nonsensical small talk and sharing of stories mostly to get our minds off what had happened, but inevitably we wondered what was going on. Was the horse okay? What would this mean for the trip? Would these trails get any better?
I kept asking her questions as to what was happening as her vantage point was a bit better than mine. It was 5 to 10 minutes before Tom came up the trail within ear shot. I passed word through Missy that I had injectible Banamine somewhere in my saddle bags that Lucy had included in case of a fatal injury since firearms weren’t permitted in the park.
Tom said he didn’t think the horse needed it. I sighed in relief.
“How is she then?” I queried. He said that she was standing and was okay, but was cut up pretty bad in several places. There was a lot of blood. My heart quickened again. Tom walked back down the trail to continue helping.
A few minutes more passed. Hov came back up the trail. He said the horse would be okay, but wouldn’t be continuing. Mark would take her out and get vet help. He advised the others to turn around and go back to the drop point where a camp was and he and I would continue to the top. He said he’d have done it by himself, but he didn’t think his horse would go without Will Black, his pasture mate.
So it was settled, he and I would ride ahead, drop the stuff, tell the others waiting at the top what had happened, and then turn around and come back to the drop point camp for the night and leave tomorrow.
At this point I’m calm, but only because I have to be for the horses. Deep in the back of my mind my thoughts are racing with fear.
I mount back up and give Will all cues to stay RIGHT and not get anywhere near that left hand side. I wasn’t worried about either of the mules Hov and I were pulling. Mules are sure-footed sons of bitches. If anything, I was pondering why the hell I wasn’t riding a mule. A horse seemed so inferior at this point.
We continued on the trail upward winding through several intermittent streams as we rose up. The condition of the trail didn’t improve at all. While my reins were loose, my stay-on-the-uphill-side cues were applied and my hands were gripped white-knuckled around the reins. My body was calm. All cues I could give to the horse to upset him or worry him were as calm as I could feasibly get them, but my mind was still racing.
: : : : :
Hov and I had a quiet ride, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
With time we made it to the AT. I gave a whoop of excitement. We turned left and continued, now along a heavily wooded ridgeline. This was a big improvement in my mind and I started to settle down, but I was still very much alert.
|Pulling Ernest behind me; this was somewhere before Sierra tumbled down the mountain|
The weather was nicer up here already. Not so humid and quite a bit breezier. The vegetation had changed from a primarily deciduous forest, to a more coniferous one. The scent of red spruce and other conifers never ceases to calm me. Its one of my favorite smells and brings about a wealth of positive memories.
The AT was steep and by large the rockiest trail I’d ever ridden on. I remarked to Hov, “Creek bed, trail, pff, same thing!” I fall back on my snarky nature in times of stress. Its just what I do. I need to find reasons to laugh; it tricks my head into calming down.
We continued onward without incident other than slowness from the rough terrain. I enjoyed the views, kept my keep-to-the-uphill cues going for Will in the narrow drop off sections, and watched listened to the wealth of high elevation bird species and plant life(because I’m a nature nerd like that).
: : : : :
Finally, many miles and hours later, we arrived at the drop point. It was 6:30p.
Wag and Melinda were there unloading. They were just as exhausted as we were and not overly thrilled to hear that they would HAVE to go back down now. They had planned to tell us when we all arrived that they wouldn’t be going down, ain’t no way, ain’t no how.
Amidst joking at our misfortune, we unloaded what we’d brought and loaded another pack our helpers had brought for Vetice. The helpers took off ahead of us on their fast gaited/racking horses and we followed a little ways after.
Hov and I were all about letting our horses truck ahead full steam in the home ward direction as long as they had the gusto to go. My mule wasn’t as thrilled, but kept up better than he had during the first half. Wag and Melinda weren’t far behind. We covered in an hour what had taken us 1h:40m to do before.
Where the trail became very rocky Hov and I both dismounted and decided to walk the rest of the trail. Wag had sprained his ankle a day or so prior and didn’t have this option, and Melinda decided to ride, too.
I decided at this point, as I hiked along skidding over rocks and doing all I could do not to twist my ankle or fall (or let Will Black walk over top of me – bad manners!) that the Man from Snowy River ain’t got shit on us.
: : : : :
In sum, it took 1h:40m to get off the AT and back onto the Big Creek section of trail. It was 8:43p by this point, and it would become truly dark around 9:30-9:45p. We probably hiked 4 or 5 miles of the Big Creek trail before it got truly dark.
By this point I was leading his riding horse, Captain, because Will Black had nearly knocked me over a half dozen times. Will and Ernest mule were attached. The order was like this: me leading Cap, Doc mule following loose behind, Hov leading Will and Ernest mule, Melinda riding, Wag riding and pulling his two behind.
Once I had the flashlight I felt a little better. Hiking in my cowboy boots wasn’t ideal. I could feel blisters beginning to form by the time we’d finished the AT section. It was funny how my thoughts of sitting around eating and talking with friends when we made it to camp, changed to how thirsty and hungry I was, changed to how ready I was to be done, changed to how much my feet hurt, changed to fuck, my feet really hurt, changed to my feet are killing me but I can’t stop must.get.to.camp.
Stumbling sight unseen on that trail for the time I did without a flashlight was a big thing for me to do. I was so nervous and scared through each step of that narrow trail. Cap wouldn’t get off my butt, but wasn’t being as bad as Will had been.
I was aware horses have very good night vision compared to us, and that they would be just fine walking along, but I was still rattled from watching Mark’s horse tumble down, down, down.
I was reliving the scene in my mind as we came upon the place where she had gone over the edge. Hov had warned the trail was particularly soft there. I didn’t yet have a flashlight, but could sense that the trail had changed a bit. I became even more cautious than I already was. Then Cap started blowing and snorting.
I noticed the pack saddle and pad lying ahead on the uphill side of the tiny trail. I called back to Hov to let him know. I then proceeded cautiously, talking as calmly as I could to Cap to get him by. I fell over twice, on the uphill side thankfully, but made it by without major incident. Doc was very spooked though and came speeding up on us startling Cap.
Doc rammed I into Cap’s butt, almost pushing him off the trail, then went uphill and passed around us (how the hell?!) and continued for a few feet down the trail before turning in fright and running back at Cap and ramming into him from the front while I held onto the lead in fright. Doc stopped – miraculously – perched precariously on the downhill drop off. Damned mules and their suction cup traction, it was incredible.
I managed to get Cap around Doc and have Doc continue to follow behind. We continued for a little more before Hov let me get out a flashlight, with the warning to not shine it anywhere in the direction of the horses, only in front of me to see as it would ruin the horse’s night vision. He cautioned me to turn it off if the horse had an issue.
While the flashlight calmed me some, it didn’t help me walk much better. Cap was still kicking my ass in that department. I still continued to stumble as I tried my damndest to remember pieces of the trail to judge how far from camp I was. At some point near the end, Captain gave up on me being a pathetic little two-legged being and decided there was no rush and it would be good to just stop and eat, randomly jerking the lead out of my hand.
I was singing 4-H camp songs aloud to myself at this point to distract my mind from my feet and the distance. As I finished with the fast ones I could recollect and started into a slow song, I saw lights.
To be continued…