Friday, September 20, 2013

Part 204 - Bodil Freezes to Death

Day 3 – Monday, September 23, 2013

Even though I was camped under the trees last night just before Glacier Pass and somewhat sheltered from the drizzling rain, I awoke to an inch of snow on the ground; it was a harbinger of what was to come.  At this point, with snow falling and knowing I needed to hurry along, I didn’t fully realize how close I was to total disaster - to either being stranded in the mountains, surrounded on all sides by three feet of snow; possibly needing an air rescue; or having to retreat down the mountain to Hart’s Pass or Rainy Pass, and ending the journey just miles from the border.

It was cold last night, but not to the point of freezing the water in my water bottles; nevertheless, I was constantly rubbing body parts in an effort to gain enough warmth to go back to sleep.  I had three days left to make it to the border, and the end of the trip was playing out as I feared it would – snow in the high mountains of the North Cascade Range.  It was now a race against time to get out of the mountains and to the lower elevations surrounding the Canadian border before the trail was covered and lost in the snow.  Because of my age, I had known from the very beginning of the journey that I couldn’t afford to waste time on the trail; I have had to push, push, push.  Within the next three days, I will know if the days of getting up early and making miles before other hikers were even stirring, was worth the effort.

Out of my tent and on the trail, I pushed on.  Hancock Mountain loomed in front of me, and it would take twenty switchbacks to climb to the top.

Today was as cold and miserable as it has ever been on the trail.  I was wearing every piece of clothing item I possessed, which wasn’t much.  The wind bit at my cheeks and turned my nose red; my nose dribbled constantly and wiping it with the fabric of my rain jacket only agitated and aggravated the soreness of it.  My wool mittens were wet and offered only marginal protection from the rain and cold.  My shoes – well, they haven’t been dry in days, and I can’t feel my feet.

As I struggled up the trail, moving higher and higher into the snowy mountains, I was cognizant of some of my ancestors who, 145 years ago, also struggled with early September/October snowstorms on the windswept plains of Wyoming as members of the Martin-Willie Handcart companies.

Martin-Willie Handcart Companies

Mormon pioneers, during the decade of the 1860s, made the trek across the Midwest to the mountain valleys of the Great Salt Lake mainly by wagon train.  But oxen and wagons were costly and travel was slow and many of the new converts arriving on the American shores were poor and could ill afford the cost of even this simple mode of transportation.  Church leaders had seen ‘49ers trudging through the newly founded city of Salt Lake, heading for the gold fields in California pushing wheelbarrows loaded with all of their belongings, moving much more rapidly across the prairies than conventional wagon trains and at considerable less cost; thus was born the idea of letting new emigrants use handcarts that could be pulled and pushed across the land.

Ten companies of Mormon emigrants made the thirteen-hundred-mile handcart journey from Iowa City, Iowa, the western terminus of the rail line, to the Great Salt Lake; but in 1856, two companies of approximately 980 souls, ran into trouble in central Wyoming when early winter snows descended upon them.  During this time on the trail, approximately 280 people died from sickness, exposure, and other maladies.

Their late departure from England had a snowball effect on the rest of their journey to the Salt Lake Valley, and was the cause of so many of their hardships.  Iowa City, Iowa, was the jumping-off point for the great journey to the West, but the James G. Willie and Edward Martin companies didn’t leave until August 17 and 27 respectively, while normal starting time was before July 7th.

I’ve driven my pickup truck across Wyoming in the wintertime, and when the wind is howling and the snow is in full blizzard mode, it’s not a place for man or beast, and I can’t even begin to imagine what these ill-prepared European immigrants had to endure being as poorly dressed as they were.  Most had no gloves, and many had no hats, only scarves to wrap around the ears and head.  Socks were a luxury item and shoes or boots did little to protect the feet from frostbite.  The most difficult part of the journey was pulling the carts up and over fifteen- mile-long Rocky Ridge in knee-deep snow in a howling blizzard.

On one night alone, thirteen members of the Willie Company died and were buried in a common, shallow grave in Martin’s Grove, along the Sweetwater River. (Howard)

The tender story of ten-year-old Bodil Mortensen is often told during reenactments of the handcart trek across Rocky Ridge by Mormon youth.  Bodil’s father in Denmark could not afford to pay the fare for all members of the family to travel to Utah at one time, so the father sent the family piecemeal.  Little Bodil was sent with other Danish immigrants to join her sister in Utah, who had come the year before.

On the painful trek across Rocky Ridge, Bodil was given the responsibility to watch over other children; after twenty-seven hours of trudging through the heavy snow, the company reached their campsite along the Sweetwater River.  Turning over her charges to other adults, Bodil went to collect firewood.  When she was found the next morning, she was resting against the wheel of a wagon, twigs of sagebrush clutched in hand, frozen to death. (Olsen, 2013)

On the bus ride out of Stehekin back to the trailhead, two older couples sitting behind me who were staying at the Stehekin Valley Ranch, were talking about their hiking days when they were younger.  I couldn’t help but hear their conversation and listened a bit harder when they started talking about a breathing technique called "pressure breathing."  Both men reported that they had employed this technique on long climbs to high elevation, with great success.

Now, I was all ears, as I listen intently to their conversation, hoping they would divulge the secret of "pressure breathing."  At last one says, “Yeah, it was just a matter of forcing out the last bit of carbon dioxide in the lungs by exerting pressure with the diaphragm, rather than just exhaling with the chest.”

As I had labored up the mountains, day after day, for months on end, never really being able to get sufficient oxygen into my lungs, I listened to their conversation, and thought,
“Could it really be this simple?  Could I really increase my blood oxygen level just by exhaling – using my diaphragm, rather than exhaling normally by the rise and fall of my chest?"

Mormon pioneers struggling with their handcarts on the Wyoming plains.

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