Day 5: In Which We “Summit” Avalanche Peak and I am Paralyzed by Fear

At 10,000 feet, less than 600 vertical feet below the summit, loose, flat shards of slippery shale underneath my feet, surrounded by nothing but sky, the wind taunting me, shrieking and screaming, shoving me in all directions. The tree line is hundreds of feet below me, so there is nothing to hold on to, brace against, or block the wind. The mountain slope above me is at almost a 90 degree angle. What is supposedly a path in front of me is maybe a foot wide at its most generous.

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For the second time on this same trail, my confidence and composure failed, and panic paralyzed me. We did not complete this hike.

But, first things first.

East Entrance
East Entrance

We left Worland early in the morning, taking the scenic route toward the East Entrance of Yellowstone. We passed through Cody, WY, home of Buffalo Bill, just in time–right before their annual 4th of July parade that kicks off a huge rodeo–that Fodor’s guide says they call “Cowboy Christmas.”

On the other side of Cody–I’m so glad we didn’t get stuck in the parade traffic–we briefly stopped at Buffalo Bill Dam. It’s a beautiful place, but in an effort to continue on to Yellowstone, we only snapped a few pictures before getting back out on the road.

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Several miles later, after passing a snow plow in July, we finally reached the East Entrance of Yellowstone, what I had been waiting for since we started planning this excursion a year and a half earlier. (Traveler’s tip: wear clothing that depicts something from home. With me in my IU shirt and David in his Purdue hat, we met far more people. One group from Fort Wayne, IN even offered to take our picture at the East Entrance.)

Not really having a plan, we stopped at Sylvan Lake for lunch to watch the loons and take a quick flip through the guidebook. We had both marked Avalanche Peak Trail, and it was near the entrance, so we set out on our first hike in Yellowstone. The guidebook says that on a busy day, there may be 6 groups of hikers that attempt the trail. Our car made #14 in the parking lot beside the trailhead, with more following us as we put on our gear. Busy day, indeed.

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The start wasn’t so bad. The entire trail is 2 miles long in one direction, but it climbs 2,000 feet in elevation. It was very steep in parts, and definitely the most tiring that we had ever attempted. We made frequent stops for water, rest, and pictures, meeting a group of guys and their young sons, also from Fort Wayne, IN.

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Up and up we went.

The scenery was beautiful; there was even a stream that kept us company on our ascent, clear and crisp as ice. Ahead of us, we could see peaks and snow.

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When we got to the area that I thought was the summit–but wasn’t–we saw a badger and a momma mule deer with her fawn. I went and played in the snow while David took pictures. I really thought we were done with the hike at this point. In retrospect, I should have stopped there. From that little plateau, the trail became much more steep and much less safe. We pressed on, and the longer we were on this bit of the trail, the more uncomfortable I became. The trail was barely wide enough for one step, and here is where we met a lot of other hikers on their way back down the trail. Finding a place to get over to let them through was difficult, and was rapidly becoming concerning. At one point, I had to stop, fighting back tears, and told David that I needed to go back down the trail. It was far too steep, far too narrow, and fear was creeping in. After a few minutes of breathing and finding a place to rest, I was okay with pushing onward. To have come all this way and not summit didn’t seem like an option.

This is where I played in the snow (in JULY), and where I should have stopped.
This is where I played in the snow (in JULY), and where I should have stopped.

Farther up the trail, it became impossibly steep. The ground gave way to broken rock, flat and sharp and smooth–it was not a good substance for finding a foothold. There was no room for error in footsteps, as one wrong move would send a hiker over the side. We were also above the treeline, so there was nothing to obstruct the wind, which was absolutely howling at this elevation. That was when it happened. I was gripped with fear, tears in my eyes, and it was hard to breathe. David was trying to console me by joking around and hugging me, but I was in no mood for jokes or being touched. All it did was make me more aggravated. All I wanted was to descend. At one point, I sat down, basically on nothing; I was too terrified to take even one more step upward, but also too petrified to start downhill (or downmountain).

Taking the time to stop and breathe to try to calm my nerves, the view was pretty cool. But with the wind and how narrow/slippery the path was, I was not comfortable. Fear overmastered me, and I could not continue.

I’m still glad that we attempted this hike, as it was lots of fun before the last 600 vertical feet. The view, even though we were below the summit, was still pretty spectacular, and well worth the grueling hike up.

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Coming down was brutal. This trail was the most rugged I had ever been on. Rugged is not the right term. “Treacherous” suits this one better. I guess I should have known better with a name like ‘avalanche.’ I couldn’t even pray on my way down because I could not form complete sentences, even though I tried. My whole world consisted of: “One more step… one more step…” I couldn’t even tell you how long it took to get back down. I now know why people have knee replacement surgeries. As we descended, the only thought I had was, maybe I won’t have to worry about med school debt, moving, or boards… because I am going to die right here! I held on to my small set of binoculars in my left hand so tightly, as if that would somehow save me from my untimely demise. I don’t think I fully relaxed until we were back in the SUV and I had my shoes/gear off.

I know David was disappointed. I was too. I REALLY wanted to summit Avalanche Peak. The thought never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t. (Fodor’s calls Avalanche Peak Trail Yellowstone’s “best kept secret.” My foot!)

Avalanche Peak broke me. Never again would I attempt this trail. I was not prepared for that. As an amateur hiker at this level, it probably wasn’t the best choice of dayhikes. Sure, 8 year old Boy Scouts finished the climb and I didn’t, but I did push past my first bout of fear and saw the view–it’s still a win in my book. Mountaineering is not for me.

At the base, I couldn’t tell if I was starting to get a tan, or if I was just covered in dirt and dust and grime that stuck to all of the sunscreen and bug spray. Here, i finally stopped shaking. Mountain goats would have been ok on this hike, but sadly, I am not nearly as well-equipped as a mountain goat!

And where did I twist my ankle? Twenty feet from the trailhead, on flat ground devoid of rocks, tree roots, or obstacles of any sort. Go me.

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