By Michael Lipsky
For many years I had wanted to return to the Elysian Fields, an off-trail backcountry area of trackless meadows in the Mount Rainier Wilderness within Mount Rainier National Park. The opportunity arose when I joined my son, Josh, and three of his friends on a backpacking trip a few years after they graduated from college.
The plan was to hike several miles up the trail to gain elevation, then go cross-country until we reached the base of one of the ridges beyond which the Elysian Fields unfolded. We would then climb up and over the ridge, and descend to our destination.
We set out early one morning in August. The day was cloudy, neither cold nor warm. We hiked along the river for about two miles, then followed the trail as it ascended along Moraine Creek on the east side of the Carbon Glacier. We ignored a fine mist as we gained elevation.
Soon it was raining. With the exertion we were warm enough. But we had failed to put on our raingear. On breaks we were getting cold. One of us was shivering and began to throw up. Maybe he was getting sick. Maybe he was getting scared; this was his first time in the mountains. Although there were still hours before dark, it was time to make camp.
Park regulations require campsites to be beyond sight and sound of all trails. Nonetheless, we decided we would make camp at the first plausible spot. One of us was ill; getting him into a tent and warm and dry was our priority.
We awoke to a breezy morning with a mixed cloud cover that zipped across the sky. Our ailing camper was feeling fine. We continued along the trail, gaining elevation, looking to our left and more or less eastward for a good place to leave the trail.
At some point we cut across country. The steep slope we set out to cross was mostly scree—jumbled rock that had fallen in slides from higher points. It was slow going.
I was keeping my eye on the weather. One moment it was sunny, the next moment clouds obscured the sun.
Soon we settled on an intermediate destination—a forested shelf athwart the slope. It seemed like a good place to stop, eat lunch, and from there, hump it up and over the ridge.
The day was still dry, but clouds were beginning to dominate.
After a quick lunch, we prepared to scramble up the slope. The guys took off, bounding up the rocks. Josh hung back. Maybe he felt responsible for not letting me fall behind.
It began to rain. I felt a pressure in my abdomen. Moments later I said to myself, “the feeling I am having is fear.”
Having named it, I knew it was true. I saw instantly that we should not proceed. We couldn’t see the top of the ridge. We didn’t know what we would find at the top. We didn’t know if we could find a place to camp, or even take shelter. The rain might stop, but it also might continue and get heavier while we were still exposed. In any event, going on was treacherous. With the rain we would be hurrying to make camp, but climbing over scree with full packs should be done with care.
I told Josh he needed to call the guys back. “This is the way people die in the mountains,” I said. As I spoke the words, I deeply knew it was true.
He did call the guys back. It was difficult for them to give up all that ground—in the mountains one never wants to lose elevation. They came back, and I explained my thinking. They argued, but I wasn’t open to a discussion.
It took a bit of time for them to digest the change in plans, but we turned around and made camp, now in the rain, on the shelf of ground behind us.
The weather the next day was still problematic. We decided to descend to meadows we could see below us. It would be more sheltered if the weather continued to be nasty. If the weather cleared, we could return and climb the ridge we had abandoned two days earlier.
And so we did climb that ridge. The next day, around noon, we were able to look down into the Elysian Fields. A herd of elk grazed in the meadows, undisturbed by the five observers watching them from hundreds of feet above.
We returned to camp, and the next day bushwacked out, descending through forest in ragged order, confident that if we just kept going down we would hit the trail we had come up five days before.
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A nice account of an adventure. Reminds me of my younger years when i climbed and camped in the lovely mountains of Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia. It was in the company of friends and local mountain club. We had also winter climbs over ridges and sleeping in the snow. Now, due to my age, I can only remember and enjoy accounts of other people as the one presented here. I still have energy taking part in many acitiviities in nature protection, especially in mountain regions. Greetings from Belgrade, Serbia.
Thanks for giving the great advice regarding turning around - many of the SAR missions we have here in the Rockies involve people who are determined despite all data to summit.
I agree with previous person " Keep it wild & beautiful for all nature lovers" . I have seen pictures of Mount Rainier, it is a very beatiful national park. Let's keep it clean & beautiful for future & current generations.
The retired (but not retiring!) political scientist evidently appreciated that this was not a time for democracy; it was the one with experience and a clear sense of the several risks being faced who rightly called the shots. Hopefully the eager young ones did not mind too much being reined in, and fell in line without major complaining.
Seems so many of these hikers start out with such bravado, forgetting all about taking sensible precautions and being prepared for all sorts of weather and unforeseeable events. Glad they all made it back alive!
Listening to my inner voice (intuition) has always been my first and most reliable guide in the mountains. Thanks for making that clear that you followed that deep feeling in the pit of your stomach, Michael. The one time I ignored or went against my strong feelings of "turn back NOW" I broke off a snow cornice and fell, carried down by an avalanche, for 800 feet on a 50 degree slope. After 3 hours of crawling out with multiple major injuries I spent 7 days in a local hospital, most fortunate to be alive and in a healing place. Learn to listen to your deep self!
I've been in that quandary when backpacking with my youngest daughter for 27 years in the wilderness. It was always a tough decision. You made the right call. The Elysian Fields sound like paradise. Lucky that you got to see them.
Hi Michael, enjoyed your short story on your adventure, sounds like a really beautiful area. I commend you for making that important decision, and know it's not easy with fit young men raring to go. As you know, the weather in the mountains in summer can change very quickly, and numerous potential hazards seem to appear out of nowhere. Lightning, hypothermia, (doesn't have to be cold), slippery conditions, (especially with a full pack), blisters, navigation issues, etc.
You made the right call, and maybe the young guys learned a good lesson.
As a pro guide for 30 yrs. I've needed to turn some of my clients back, but knew that continuing, (with the situation at hand), would be taking more risk that I was comfortable with. David Breashears, (one of the top mountaineers in the world, who you probably are familiar with), has turned himself around just a few hundred feet from a 8k meter summit, because of safety. Here's to taking some, calculated risks and enjoying the wilderness, Scott
Wish you had kept going with your story and more pictures. An incredible experience and your fellow trekkers were lucky to have you as their companion.
I love reading these well written stories of the experiences of others who share my love of the backcountry.