I was reading a book on the late photographer Garry Winogrand earlier this summer. The book is titled The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand and it's a good book. In it I came across a passage where it implied whenever people asked for Winogrand's advise on photography, he often wisecracked “Don’t drop the camera.”
Last night I took a trailside tumble off the edge of a steep mountainside and fell about 10-15 feet before crashing into a large granite rock with my head. It wasn’t a free fall — if I did that and landed square on my head as I did I probably wouldn’t be writing this small story this morning — someone else at the local paper would be. I slid most of that distance head-first through trees and rock. And fast.
In the process, I lost a favorite camera to another rock. This camera was a Leica T109, probably a rebranded Panasonic with Leica glass. It’s a 4/3 compact camera but it fit easily into my pants pocket, had a terrific set of features including a viewfinder that I really liked, and it was very capable for this type of camera. It was a real workhorse for me and was my best go-to travel camera.
It was an odd day from the get-go. I dawdled, as I too often do these days, and got a late start from Seattle. I left about 10:30 AM, a little late for a hike in North Cascades National Park. The closest edge of the park is about 2-½ hours from Seattle on a day with light traffic, and most trailheads are a bit remote and require an additional 30-60 minutes of driving. It’s summer and there’s no such thing as light traffic in or around Seattle anymore on these long days. Plus, there were several long middle-of-nowhere back-ups on I-5 due to the summer road repair season. Spontaneity is a thing of the past, it seems. But leaving at 10:30 AM was late even in the earlier Age of Spontaneity.
It’s been smoky in Washington in recent weeks due to many forest fires and when I pulled into the small foothills town of Concrete off the North Cascades Highway, you could barely see the mountains ahead of you. Everything looked dingy and crispy dry. I almost decided to turn back around and try another day, but I went on. As I thought might happen, as I got closer to the mountains, the smoke always seemed further ahead so, though hazy, I’d still get some views.
On the drive up the Cascade River Road, in the upper reaches where it can be rough, especially for a passenger car, and where it washes out almost every winter, there was a small passenger car that went off the edge of the road. It’s basically a single lane road up there with few pullouts and I suspect the young driver drove to the edge to let another car pass on its way down. He misjudged a little and his right wheels slipped off the partially sunken road and the car had bottomed out. I felt bad for him, but he was probably a little lucky. He went off in a small section with asphalt. If it had been only dirt and rocks, he may have slipped completely of the edge and down quite far into the forest below. A tow truck had already arrived by the time I reached him and was preparing to pull him out. The closest town is Marblemount, about 23 miles down the Cascade River Road, the uppermost 13 miles of them unpaved and a bit rough. But the tow truck service had him pulled out in about 15 minutes (there was a lot of scraping as to be expected, but the car wasn't leaking any oil or other fluids) and about 15 minutes later, I arrived at the dusty trailhead. With the added traffic and tow delay, I had lost about an hour.
I started on the trail about 2:30 PM, the latest start time I’ve probably had for a day hike of this nature and distance. Due to that late start, I hiked only about 6 miles up to and along Sahale Arm, a little less than I usually do. I believe it is 6-½ to 7 miles to the climber’s camps at the base of Sahale glacier. I set a 5:00 PM turnaround time for myself and modified it to 5:45 PM up on the arm. I didn’t want to hike out in the dark which is so often the case with me on this trail.
In the early evening on my way back down, I stopped to take a couple of photos from the trail as the sun set behind Hidden Lake Peak. I was in the easy lower forest with probably less than two miles remaining before reaching my car. After snapping the last of the photos, I turned to my left to continue to head down the trail. I must’ve been closer to the edge than I realized. My right foot fell into the void when I was expecting ground. Instantly I had that "oh no" thought – though I was thinking something other than no – and before I knew it I was falling and crashing head first through trees and rocks. I couldn’t stop the fall or arrest myself, and only came to a hard stop when the top of my head met a large granite boulder. I was wearing a canvas ‘fisherman’s’ crusher hat and that cushioned my head a little, but not much. It probably prevented a more serious cut.
I was a bit dazed and after shaking off the stars, I realized my left knee and ankle were pretty sore – I wondered whether I could walk on them. I could with a slight gimp. They are still sore this morning. I twisted and whacked them on the fall. My right wrist is a bit sprained as well this morning. I must have used it to cushion the fall. This was the hand I was carrying my camera with. My left shin, arm and hand were bloodied, but mostly these were superficial cuts or road burns. They stung a little, but that’s it. The camera was crushed. I was shaken, dazed and shaky for most of the remaining walk to the car, but by the time I reached the parking lot at 8:30 PM I felt fine enough for the three hour drive home last night. Besides, what choice did I have?
All said, I probably am no more banged up than your average high school or college football player gets in a single hard hit in any given game. And they probably experience dozens of those hits every game, every week. But I’m not 18 or 20 years old any longer and not anywhere near the shape I was back when I was. I’m about 3 times that age now and it takes a little longer to heal.
In the end, last night I was lucky. I have a small history of falling off of things like ledges, embankments, bikes and ladders — mostly trailside or natural ledges; mostly in the dark. Last night it wasn’t dark. I was just simply careless. And I dropped the goddamn camera in the process. It could have been far worse, and the camera is replaceable. This morning, I’m only a little worse for wear — and a little materially poorer. For some reason, this entire summer, starting in about early May, has seemed a little off-kilter to me. And I'm not sure why.
Sometimes, when reflecting on the many stupid things I’ve done over my life, I’ll brush them off with the self-effacing comment “Yeah, well I was young and stupid then. I’m not so young anymore.” This almost always elicits the question "How about stupid — you still stupid?" Last night, I answered that — in spades.