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Chapter 16

OVER CASCADE PASS


To get out of the Doubtful Lake plateau to Cascade Pass it was necessary to climb eight hundred feet up a steep and very slippery cliffside. On the other side lay the pass, but on the level of the lake. It was here that we "went up a hill one day and then went down again" with a vengeance. And on this cliffside it was that the little gray mare went over again, falling straight on to a snow-bank, which saved her, and then rolling over and over shedding parts of our equipment, and landing far below dazed and almost senseless.

It was on the top of that wall above Doubtful Lake that I had the greatest fright of the trip.

That morning, as a special favor, the Little Boy had been allowed to go ahead with Mr. Hilligoss, who was to clear trail and cut footholds where they were necessary. When we were more than halfway to the top of the wall above the lake, two alternative routes to the top offered themselves, one to the right across a snow-field that hugged the edge of a cliff which dropped sheer five hundred feet to the water, another to the left over slippery heather which threatened a slide and a casualty at every step. The Woodsman had left no blazes, there being no tree to mark. Holding on by clutching to the heather with our hands, we debated. Finally, we chose the left-hand route as the one they had probably taken. But when we reached the top, the Woodsman and the Little Boy were not there. We hallooed, but there was no reply. And, suddenly, the terrible silence of the mountains seemed ominous. Had they ventured across the snow-bank and slipped?

I am not ashamed to say that, sitting on my horse on the top of that mountain-wall, I proceeded to have a noiseless attack of hysterics. There were too many chances of accident for any of the party to take the matter lightly. There we gathered on that little mountain meadow, not much bigger than a good-sized room, and waited. There was snow and ice and silence everywhere. Below, Doubtful Lake lay like a sapphire set in granite, and far beneath it lay the valley from which we had climbed the day before. But no one cared for scenery.

Then it was that "Silent Lawrie" turned his horse around and went back. Soon he hallooed, and, climbing back to us, reported that they had crossed the ice-bank. He had found the marks of the axe making footholds. And soon afterward there was another halloo from below, and the missing ones rode into sight. They were blithe and gay. They had crossed the ice-field and had seen a view which they urged we should not miss. But I had had enough view. All I wanted was the level earth. There could be nothing after that flat enough to suit me.

Sliding, stumbling, falling, leading our scrambling horses, we got down the wall on the other side. It was easier going, but slippery with heather and that green moss of the mountains, which looks so tempting but which gives neither foothold nor nourishment. Then, at last, the pass.

It was thirty-six hours since our horses had had anything to eat. We had had food and sleep, but during the entire night the poor animals had been searching those rocky mountain-sides for food and failing to find it. They stood in a dejected group, heads down, feet well braced to support their weary bodies.

But last summer was not a normal one. Unusually heavy snowfalls the winter before had been followed by a late, cold spring. The snow was only beginning to melt late in July, and by September, although almost gone from the pass itself, it still covered deep the trail on the east side.

So, some of those who read this may try the same great adventure hereafter and find it unnecessary to make the Doubtful Lake détour. I hope so. Because the pass is too wonderful not to be visited. Some day, when this magnificent region becomes a National Park, and there is something more than a dollar a mile to be spent on trails, a thousand dollars or so invested in trail-work will put this roof of the world within reach of any one who can sit a horse. And those who go there will be the better for the going. Petty things slip away in the silent high places. It is easy to believe in God there. And the stars and heaven seem very close.

One thing died there forever for me--my confidence in the man who writes the geography and who says that, representing the earth by an orange, the highest mountains are merely as the corrugations on its skin.

On Cascade Pass is the dividing-line between the Chelan and the Washington National Forests. For some reason we had confidently believed that reaching the pass would see the end of our difficulties. The only question that had ever arisen was whether we could get to the pass or not. And now we were there.

We were all perceptibly cheered; even the horses seemed to feel that the worst was over. Tame grouse scudded almost under our feet. They had never seen human beings, and therefore had no terror of them.

And here occurred one of the small disappointments that the Middle Boy will probably remember long after he has forgotten the altitude in feet of that pass and other unimportant matters. For he scared up some grouse, and this is the tragedy. The open season for grouse is September 1st in Chelan and September 15th across the line. And the birds would not cross the line. They were wise birds, and must have had a calendar about them, for, although we were vague as to the date, we knew it was not yet the 15th. So they sat or fluttered about, and looked most awfully good to eat. But they never went near the danger-zone or the enemy's trenches.

We lay about and rested, and the grouse laughed at us, and a great marmot, sentinel of his colony, sat on a near-by rock and whistled reports of what we were doing. Joe unlimbered the moving-picture camera, and the Head used the remainder of his small stock of iodine on the injured horses. The sun shone on the flowers and the snow, on the pail in which our cocoa was cooking, on the barrels of our unused guns and the buckles of the saddles. We watched the pack-horses coming down, tiny pin-point figures, oddly distorted by the great packs. And we rested for the descent.

I do not know why we thought that descent from Cascade Pass on the Pacific side was going to be easy. It was by far the most nerve-racking part of the trip. Yet we started off blithely enough. Perhaps Buddy knew that he was the first horse to make that desperate excursion. He developed a strange nervousness, and took to leaping off the trail in bad places, so that one moment I was a part of the procession and the next was likely to be six feet above the trail on a rocky ledge, with no apparent way to get down.

We had expected that there would be less snow on the western slope, but at the beginning of the trip we found snow everywhere. And whereas before the rock-slides had been wretchedly uncomfortable but at comparatively low altitudes, now we found ourselves climbing across slides which hugged the mountain thousands of feet above the valley.

Our nerves began to go, too, I think, on that last day. We were plainly frightened, not for ourselves but each for the other. There were many places where to dislodge a stone was to lose it as down a bottomless well. There was one frightful spot where it was necessary to go through a waterfall on a narrow ledge slippery with moss, where the water dropped straight, uncounted feet to the valley below.

The Little Boy paused blithely, his reins over his arm, and surveyed the scenery from the center of this death-trap.

"If anybody slipped here," he said, "he'd fall quite a distance." Then he kicked a stone to see it go.

"Quit that!" said the Head, in awful tones.

Midway of the descent, we estimated that we should lose at least ten horses. The pack was behind us, and there was no way to discover how they were faring. But as the ledges were never wide enough for a horse and the one leading him to move side by side, it seemed impossible that the pack-ponies with their wide burdens could edge their way along.

I had mounted Buddy again. I was too fatigued to walk farther, and, besides, I had fallen so often that I felt he was more sure-footed than I. Perhaps my narrowest escape on that trip was where a huge stone had slipped across the ledge we were following. Buddy, afraid to climb its slippery sides, undertook to leap it. There was one terrible moment when he failed to make a footing with his hind feet and we hung there over the gorge. After that, Dan Devore led him.

In spite of our difficulties, we got down to the timber-line rather quickly. But there trouble seemed to increase rather than diminish. Trees had fallen across the way, and dangerous détours on uncertain footing were necessary to get round them. The warm rains of the Pacific Slope had covered the mountain-sides with thick vegetation also. Our way, hardly less steep than on the day before, was overgrown with greenery that was often a trap for the unwary. And even when, at last, we were down beyond the imminent danger of breaking our necks at every step, there were more difficulties. The vegetation was rank, tremendously high. We worked our way through it, lost to each other and to the world. Wilderness snows had turned the small streams to roaring rivers and spread them over flats through which we floundered. So long was it since the trail had been used that it was often difficult to tell where it took off from the other side of the stream. And our horses were growing very weary. They had made the entire trip without grain and with such bits of pasture as they could pick up in the mountains. Now it was a long time since they had had even grass.

It will never be possible to know how many miles we covered in that Cascade Pass trip. As Mr. Hilligoss said, mountain miles were measured with a coonskin, and they threw in the tail. Often to make a mile's advance we traveled four on the mountain-side.

So when they tell me that it was a trifle of sixteen miles from the top of Cascade Pass to the camp-site we made that night, I know that it was nearer thirty. In point of difficulties, it was a thousand.

Yet the last part of the trip, had we not been too weary to enjoy it, was superbly beautiful. There was a fine rain falling. The undergrowth was less riotous and had taken on the form of giant ferns, ten feet high, which overhung the trail. Here were great cypress trees thirty-six feet in circumference--a forest of them. We rode through green aisles where even the death of the forest was covered by soft moss. Out of the green and moss-covered trunks of dead giants, new growth had sprung, new trees, hanging gardens of ferns.

There had been much talk of Mineral Park. It was our objective point for camp that night, and I think I had gathered that it was to be a settlement. I expected nothing less than a post-office and perhaps some miners' cabins. When, at the end of that long, hard day, we reached Mineral Park at twilight and in a heavy rain, I was doomed to disappointment.

Mineral Park consists of a deserted shack in a clearing perhaps forty feet square, on the bank of a mountain stream. All around it is impenetrable forest. The mountains converge here so that the valley becomes a cañon. So dense was the growth that we put up our tents on the trail itself.

In the little clearing round the empty shack, the horses were tied in the cold rain. It was impossible to let them loose, for we could never have found them again. Our hearts ached that night for the hungry creatures; the rain had brought a cold wind and they could not even move about to keep warm.

I was too tired to eat that night. I went to bed and lay in my tent, listening to the sound of the rain on the canvas. The camp-stove was set up in the trail, and the others gathered round it, eating in the rain. But, weary as I was, I did not sleep. For the first time, terror of the forest gripped me. It menaced; it threatened.

The roar of the river sounded like the rush of flame. I lay there and wondered what would happen if the forest took fire. For the gentle summer rain would do little good once a fire started. There would be no way out. The giant cliffs would offer no refuge. We could not even have reached them through the jungle had we tried. And forest-fires were common enough. We had ridden over too many burned areas not to realize that.


Mary Roberts Rinehart

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