Unfortunately, this path was far steeper. That’s why it wasn’t the main path. While this would normally have been a problem, in my case it was an extra advantage. I bounded down the steep slope, putting all my energy into stopping myself rather than moving forward. I was already falling forward faster than I wanted to go. Racing against the darkness, I couldn’t slow down. But riding my physical limit, I was in danger of going so quickly that I literally couldn’t halt myself. The faster I went, the less control I had over each footstep, and the more my heart wanted to burst.
I didn’t fall. By the time I could no longer see the ground, and so couldn’t see my feet at all, I had returned to a gentler slope. Then I came upon the frozen hill and pond that I had so enjoyed during the day. I did not stop to drink. I had to keep going. Below me, even with my eyes wide open, I saw nothing, but I could still see a silhouette of the road before me. I would just have to trust my footsteps, but at least I could still orient myself.
That’s when I came upon the start of the field of boulders. I knew that I was within a half mile of the wooden planks that would lead me safely to the parking lot. But separating me from the trail was a monumental landscape, a half mile of jumbled and broken rock, many of them taller than I was. I looked down at my hands and could see no hint of them, even in front of my face. But I could just make out the faintest indication of the rocks ahead of me as silhouettes against the sky. At any moment, I would be completely blind.
There was no place to walk here in the plain of boulders. Feeling my way, more scrambling on all fours than stepping, I found that I could make progress. I made my way back to the wooden planks. Then I followed the railing to the parking lot. Using its remote key, I got my rental car to light up. I was safe.
I shed my coat and just sat in the car for a while, recovering. I drank an entire bottle of water. Soon my heart rate subsided and I felt that I could drive. When I started the engine, and turned on the headlights, I got a wonderful surprise. An entire herd of reindeer — some kind of deer — were grazing in the parking lot. They were so unspoiled that they weren’t afraid of my headlights. The time was just after 11pm.
I waved to the deer and drove back to the hotel, glad to have survived — and hopefully learned something from — making a wrong-headed choice. Too bad it all happened again in 2008, when another girlfriend and I were trapped in deep snow without any hiking gear. But that’s a story that you will find in my forthcoming book, Soulburners.