Three weeks had passed since my last hike to Mason Lake and Bandera. I desperately needed some solitude in nature. At the beginning of the day, I had no idea that in several hours, I would be narrowly escaping injury.

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
The mountains beckon. Mt. Rainier towers over the surrounding hills with Olallie Lake in the foreground.

My dog, Ajax, and I usually start hiking at dawn. Tuesday, we tried something different. We headed for the mountains after dropping my daughter off at school. The familiar yearning to be “first up the trail” grew until we arrived at the Pratt Lake parking lot. At least four other groups had beaten us to the trailhead. I locked the car at 8:30, with Ajax on a leash and a restless feeling in my gut.

Race up the Mountain

We soon caught up to the largest group of six at the first fork. They turned right toward Granite Mountain. Ten minutes later, we passed a trio of backpackers taking a clothing break. All that remained were two pairs. Could they have been heading toward Granite, too? Soon after that, I felt the whisper of spider webs across my face.

I smiled and my mood improved. Even leaving this late, we were first on this section of the trail. Not only could I let my dog off-leash, but we could enjoy the peace surrounding us. No more need to race. The only deadline facing us was returning to the car by 3:15, or else dealing with rush hour traffic through downtown Seattle.

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Deep yellows of the fall foliage at Exit 47.

Fall Discoveries

Around us, vanilla leaf plants, ferns, and maples shone vibrant yellow. Mushrooms of all sizes, shapes, and colors peeked out from fallen leaves. Rushing streams crossed our path. Rivulets that flow from alpine springs even in times of drought now had more water volume due to October’s rainfall. I spotted small salad-plate patches of snow on the highest ridge, signs of approaching winter. But the day itself was balmy, in the low 60’s, with a slight breeze. We’d enjoy one last hurrah before storms hit the Puget Sound region.

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Mushrooms abound! And a patch of snow.
Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Another type of fungus poking out of a moss mat.

As we hiked, I pondered blog post ideas. Other writers have written about finding creative inspiration while walking. I do, too. We reached the second fork at mile two and headed right toward Pratt Lake. At the Olallie Lake overlook, we snapped a photo of Mt. Rainier towering over the surrounding hills in the mid-autumn sky. Four minutes later, we came to the third fork. Left leads to Rainbow and Island Lakes, which I’d visited earlier this year, twice. Right leads to Pratt Lake Basin. We turned right.

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Selfie near the boulder field in Pratt Basin, about ten minutes before my fall.

Down we wound past several switchbacks. As we crossed the boulder field, I took a selfie in front of beautiful bright yellow, orange, and red maple leaves. Part of my excitement about “getting my nature fix” was enjoying fall foliage before storms blow down all the leaves. This hike did not disappoint.

A Surprising Spill Hours from the Car

Once we passed the boulder field, we entered the woods where I’d gotten stung by a yellowjacket three months earlier. I stepped down onto a slanted boulder stuck in the middle of the trail, and before I knew what was happening, I slipped.

As I landed on both feet, I felt more than heard a pop on the lateral side of my right knee, just below the knee joint. I’d fallen correctly – not on my hips, tailbone, face, wrists, or elbows. But popping is a bad sign.

Uh oh.

I gently loaded it to test it – no break, no dislocation, no fracture. No shooting pain, no buckling, no sprain. Sometimes Ajax can sense my mood shifts. He didn’t react at all. You’re okay, I told myself.

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Traversing Pratt Lake’s east slope. The oranges, yellows, and reds demanded attention.

Decision Time

A tiny voice of reason whispered, “Turn around.” I was 2 hours and 20 minutes from the car, 90 minutes of which would be downhill. Once I climbed out of the basin, that is. I flexed and extended my foot, drew circles, took a few more steps – the ankle felt fine. I did a few stretches, then bent and straightened my leg. Tight.

I have a high tolerance for pain. I know a lot about the human body. I’d endured natural childbirth without pain medication. I’d also climbed Kilimanjaro five weeks after fracturing my foot. I had no swelling, nothing I could see or feel externally, just tenderness and tightness where a tendon popped.

Am I Really Injured?

This was nothing compared to incidences I’d experienced in the past. Yet except for Ajax, I was completely alone. That niggling voice of reason persisted. Could I trust my right leg to get me back out if I kept going? Was I walking into a troubling rescue situation if I continued? Was anyone else camping in the basin if I suddenly couldn’t walk? What if I fell again?

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Pratt Lake on July 13, northern end. Match the scree slope, right.
Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Pratt Lake on October 19, from a slightly different perspective.

Lured by the Destination

I got my trekking pole out of my pack. I don’t always use it, but I always have one with me. The lure of the destination and the last bit of beautiful weather overpowered my logical brain. We kept going, but instead of thinking about future blog posts, I cued into bodily sensations. I can always turn around, I thought.

My pole stayed out over the next three and a half hours. I found myself leading with my left leg on unknown or steep steps. Were they slick or solid? Fortunately, we’d already descended most of the way into the basin. Walking on level ground boosted my confidence. I only had a slight limp. I could do this.

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Lake Tuscohatchie beneath Chair and Bryant Peaks.

Destination Reached

For the next half hour, we traversed Pratt Lake, shooting photos of the brilliant fall foliage. At the fourth fork, we turned right toward Melakwa Lake.

Only .6 miles farther, we reached our final destination, windy Lower Tuscohatchie Lake. I took a short ten-minute break to feed Ajax, mix a protein shake, and shoot some photos. I couldn’t risk spending any more time. Not knowing whether my leg injury would become more painful, I wanted as much leeway as possible for our return to the car. We were forty minutes ahead of our turn-around time when we started back, buffeted by strong wind.

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
My faithful hiking companion, Ajax, made his way from Lake Tuscohatchie toward Pratt Lake Basin.

Returning to the Car

At Pratt Lake, we spotted two tents near the trail. Somehow, we’d missed them on the way to Lake Tuscohatchie. Did they belong to the three hikers we passed earlier that morning? We continued on toward the Pratt Lake traverse and took another quick snack break. Each time we stopped, I felt my calf stiffen. We had to keep it warm by moving. I’d rest it in the car.

Fortunately, I have very strong legs. They behaved as well as one might expect. We hiked out of the basin without seeing anyone else. Two miles from the trailhead, two Asian women approached with a huge fluffy dog. They didn’t respond to my greeting. Within a mile of the car, we spotted two other solo hikers, both women.

Narrowly Escaping Injury in the Alpine Lakes Area
Ajax takes one last look at Pratt Lake before we start back up out of the basin.

I felt the top of my calf with every step, but the low-grade ache told me I’d heal in a few days. On the way out, I briefly wondered what I would have done if I’d gotten seriously injured. What if I’d tried taking a step and couldn’t bear weight? I could have been in big trouble. And seeing so few people on the trail — nobody equipped to help anyone beyond themselves — I had to trust my ability and be self-reliant. There was no other option.

Expressing Gratitude

During the last hour, I said aloud, “Thank you X,” for all the things I was grateful for: my strong legs for getting me out safely. My boots for protecting my feet. Ajax, for his wonderful companionship. The light breeze for keeping me comfortable. The melody of the streams, and the colorful leaves. Not a single piece of trash anywhere. And the first sight of my car at 3:14.

We’d reached Lower Tuscohatchie Lake, gotten some great fall foliage shots, and made it out safely, all while avoiding panic. After several days of resting and stretching, I’m ready to hike again. Injury averted. Mental wellness re-established. Confidence restored. Mission accomplished.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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  1. Sorry you had that “scare” Court, but happy you were able to continue your hike with Ajax and make it back to the car… and home. Your strength and knowledge of the body structure are certainly great assets when facing this type of situation.
    Did I ever have a “narrow escape on a solo hike” you ask? It was hard to pick one from by “best of”… I am just too clumsy and easily distracted! I eventually selected a fall 4 years ago, just one year after my left hip replacement surgery, that could have put me in a much larger pickle than it did… and taught me several valuable lessons.
    It was a beautiful late July day and I decided to try a new trail in the central Oregon Cascades’ foothills (12 miles, 3000’ elevation). I made it to the top in good time and had an enjoyable snack watching the rolling hills around. I reflected on the fact that shared-use trails (hikers/bikers) are not my favorite and that I should only contemplate them as a “last resort”. Halfway down, I reached the top of a steep banked turn… the kind bikers no doubt relish taking at high speed. That wide gouged turn was covered in very very fine dirt; daydreaming as I too often do, I took a couple steps down… and reached terminal velocity in about 0.5 seconds (or so it seemed), ending in a tangle of hiking poles, torn shirt, not totally familiar limbs, and oddly angled straps of my fully loaded backpack. My first concern was that I had landed on my artificial hip (something the good doctors sternly said I should not do… as it’s not too difficult to dislocate the joint). Like you Court, I carefully tried leg and joint and was relieved that they seem to be OK servicing their owner a bit longer. At the next break, I was a bit surprised to find my left shirt sleeve soaked in blood. Clearly, my left hip was not the only body part I landed on – my left elbow took a healthy beating too… but I had not felt any pain until that point! I (sort of) cleaned the wound with antibiotic wipes and bandaged it in a way that would make any EMT roll they eyes and shake their head… but it DID stop the bleeding. Then… 3 miles to the car, 60 miles driving back home.
    When I got there, my wife took one look at me and said “I’m driving you to the ER”. The ER doctor was practically giddy treating my elbow while making comments to his assistant about “hanging bursa”, how to use scissors to cut “hamburgered” flesh, and the proper way to inject saline solution in one side of the joint to see if it comes out the other side. The fact that it didn’t made him (and I) quite happy – no surgery!
    Lessons: (1) my wife was right (of course, she always is) and asked that, from that point forward, I carry a Garmin Inreach… like Bethany does. (2) I removed the straps from my hiking poles – it has worked very well every time I fell after that.. and I don’t mind picking them up, once in while, when I loosen my grip inadvertently while walking. (3) If the trail goes down and looks slippery, better not to lean backwards… duh!. (4) When the acrobatics are complete, stop, breathe, take comprehensive stock of the situation, use the first aid kit if needed, before continuing the hike (in my case, I was on the way back and did not have to face the turnaround questions). (5) Before any hike, provide my wife with a map of the hike and directions to the trailhead. (6) Be mentally prepared for the possibility of something bad happening.
    For a few months now, I am considering (7) Taking wilderness first-aid classes, such as the ones provided by NOLS. I plan to do that before the 2022 hiking season kicks-off…

    1. Thanks for the share, Gerard, and wonderful lessons learned. Glad you were okay. Mistakes are often our best teachers, and the more experience we have, the more knowledge we have to draw on.

  2. I had a fall off a log over a water crossing in early spring. I was so use to just relying on my spikes to get me safely across but with the icy season behind us, those precious spikes were packed with winter gear! I self assessed and like you had my trusty training buddy Bandit, who by the way looked at me like I was a whomp! I had some bleeding going on and my knee was swelling. I tested it and knew my route, I told myself I would give it a 1/2 mile and then decide if I would make my quest to the summit! After getting the blood pumping I felt pretty good. Bandit and I made it to the summit but we did not see a soul out there. I always have my garmin in reach and my 11 essentials.. I took some Advil at the summit and downed a 1/2 liter.. we made it down and I was a little sore for a couple weeks..
    I have invested in a garmin in reach and always send my route to my sisters and they can follow me on the map that is sent with the message. I hike solo 85% of the time and always am thinking about injury and how I would make it out! It has not changed my mindset about hiking solo. I enjoy my nature time with my four legged hiking buddies..

    1. Bleeding and swelling probably would have made me turn around, as would trouble loading or bending the leg.
      Glad you were okay! Like Silvie-Marie, Gerard, and you, I do most of my hiking solo (unless you count Ajax. He gives me security and comfort and is always, ALWAYS at the ready and willing to do more.) Happy SAFE travels out there everyone!

  3. This is a warning and you listened. You could bring – a bivy, sleeping bag, extra food, extra warm clothes.

    I am sure Doug and Brooke knew about your itinerary and your approximate of return.

    You’re strong I know you will survive anything.

    Great post. Love the photos.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Silvie-Marie! Yes, I leave an ETA (estimated time of arrival) at home (with the caveat about bad traffic) and I always have my phone with me, though in the wilderness I can never rely on getting a signal. Appreciate your reading and thanks for the comments about the photos. I SO love getting out in the fall colors while they last!