How to Make Bad Decisions On Trail (PNT Pt. 15)
Suggest the Bad Decision
“Hey! Check out this alternate coming up tomorrow. Looks like it cuts off about ten miles,” I said, running up into Kira and Matthew’s camp. I had my tent set up down the hill from them and they were finishing up eating dinner.
“We were looking at that,” said Matthew.
“We’re not sure we’re going to do it, though. Still thinking about it,” said Kira.
“Right, right, it says ‘not recommended’ in the description. That just means it will be exciting,” I scoffed. “Looks like it cuts off the miles by going straight up and over the mountain.”
“Right now, I think we’re going to do the road walk. But we’re considering it,” said Matthew.
“I think I’m gonna do it. I’ll see you guys in the morning. G’night!”
I woke the next morning with a full view of the dispersed camping area we had set ourselves down in. A silver truck we had not seen during the night was camped down a gravel pull off to the east of us. I packed up quick and made my way up the hill to say my goodbyes to Kira and Matthew.
“Morning,” I said, walking up.
“I think we’re going to do it,” Kira announced.
“The alternate,” said Kira.
“Nice! I’m definitely going for it. I was looking at it more in my tent last night and the topos look steep but passable. I’ll be interested to see what it looks like when we get up on it. No one has commented about doing it, but someone said it looked steep from a distance.”
“I guess we’ll see when we get there,” said Matthew.
I grinned at that.
“Well, I guess I’m gonna head out,” I said. “It was nice hanging out with you guys, but I guess I might not see you again.”
“We’re definitely not doing twenty-five miles a day,” Matthew laughed. “But you never know.”
“I suppose you never do,” I agreed.
Forget About it for Awhile
The sun beat down on the valley and the road walk ahead saw little shade. I had grabbed several liters of water before leaving camp, and did not think much of it, as I was travelling along the river. As I continued walking along the road, I soon moved passed all the dispersed camping areas and found that my access to the river was entirely cut off. I again thought little of it; there was another marked water access several miles ahead.
I enjoyed the verdant green of the farms along the river’s edge as I walked. My head was full of imaginings of retiring to a quiet valley such as this, a piece of land to tend, jagged mountains for you to dwell upon in all directions. Truly idyllic. There was a tall hill along the curve of the road, and I imagined the view down the valley a house might have from the top.
Several miles on from camp, a truck sped up to the top of its driveway. It pulled to a stop and an older man hopped out from the driver side, carrying a small cooler. He placed it at the driveway’s corner, opening it and proffering me a cold bottle of water. I eagerly accepted and thanked the man for his kindness.
“We notice you all coming through at about this time every year, so we started leaving water up here in case anyone wanted a cold drink,” the man said, placing the cooler down next to the road. “In fact, I think you’re the first hiker we’ve seen come through this year.”
“I’ve been getting that a lot,” I said. “I started walking pretty early. There’s a couple just behind me, though. I’m sure they’ll be excited to see this.”
I thanked the man, and he jumped back into his truck, driving the hundred yards back down to the bottom of his driveway. I made sure to grab a second cold water bottle before continuing on. The walk through the valley was completely exposed.
Reminisce on Previous Poor Choices
Worse than the exposure, there was no place to shit. The land was fenced off or utterly exposed on either side of me for miles. Trail poops are urgent, all that good food and exercise, and the situation grew desperate fast, me squeezing my cheeks while I busted out a speedy gait trying to arrive somewhere more proper and secluded.
I am scarred from a particular incident on the Appalachian Trail years ago, when I was caught out in the middle of a cow pasture at a particularly dire moment. Half a mile of open field lay before me, and I just was not going to make it. It was one of those, shit now, dig a hole to push it into later, moments. I did not even bother taking off my pack. I came across the rotted remains of a tree stump and squatted down behind it, grasping for whatever cover I could get, when lo and fucking behold, a day hiker came cruising over the hill.
At this point there was no stopping. I was sweating, trying to extricate my bowels as quickly as possible, as this lady made direct eye contact. I, no-wipe, pulled my pants up and started marching up the trail, eyes glued to my feet. I turned around just in time to see the woman, winded, take a break at the stump. She had no idea what I had been doing. I had to watch the disgust and horror play across her features as her eyes landed upon my desperate surface shit. She RAN away. And poor, baby, nineteen-year-old me, with no more than a few hundred miles under my belt, did not even take a moment to clean myself up. I hiked away as fast as I could, dead from embarrassment.
Me now would have smacked me then upside the head, told them to get over themselves and go back to bury it. Me then was mortified. Later on in the trail I wrote it as my trail sin in the logbook of the Priest Mountain Shelter, a well-known tradition on the Appalachian Trail. There were some raunchy confessions in that notebook.
Take Care of Extraneous Details
Not every shit is that life or death, nor was the one I felt I needed to take at the moment. Still, things were urgent. I missed getting water in lieu of making it to a place to dig my cathole as quickly as possible. I eventually found an old gravel road leading up and away from the highway and went back far enough that I was obscured from oncoming traffic before climbing up the bank to find a reasonable spot.
Don’t Forget to Eat First
Down the road the shoulder grew narrow as the road butted up between exposed bedrock and the drop into the river. I carefully made my way around corners, listening for cars. I saw that the alternate went over a couple bridges across the river and decided to push as close to the turn for the alt as possible before stopping for lunch. It ended up being perfect, because right before the turn, there sat an old tree casting its shade over a pull off.
I had stocked up well for this section, buying myself extra candy for the extended stretch. I had not been eating much sugar throughout the hike but figured I would grab something sweet after hearing Kira and Matthew’s concept they called “apology gummies.” If one of them was having a bad time, for whatever reason, the other would give them a pack of gummies to cheer them up. That sounded brilliant to me. I sat down beneath that tree and proceeded to eat the entire pack of gummy worms I had bought for that section, without remorse. I have also been told, “never save the best for last,” and “the easiest way to cut pack weight is to eat your food.”
After lunch I turned down the farm road that led back to the edge of the valley. The valley wall loomed over me. Steep was right. It was a mile walk till the road turned to run parallel with the bottom of the mountains and I was making mental maps the entire approach. It seemed clear almost immediately that the alternate’s planned route was not the most effective way to get over the ridge. It was, however, the only way to get over the ridge without trespassing.
Make a Few Extra Mistakes
As I made it to near the base of the mountains, the tannest man I have ever met pulled up next to me in a farm truck.
“Hey man! You smuggling drugs across the border or something?”
I had to laugh at that and play it cool. As lighthearted as the question was, I did not want any trouble with the locals.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m doing a long-distance hike and I’m looking for a route over the ridge.”
The man, who had to be in his late twenties, whistled low. “You’re going up there?”
“That’s the plan at least,” I said.
“Good for you man,” he said, shaking his head. “You might be the first to ever go that way.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m following a GPS track.”
He nodded solemnly. “Well, you’ll at least see a place not a lot of people get to see.”
“I guess so,” I said, thoughtfully.
“Good luck!” he shouted, as he began to drive off. I waved. Then I cursed myself.
I should have asked him for water. The two little bridges that I had crossed over had mucky, algae ridden water beneath them, and I had decided to pass, thinking I could stretch the single liter I had left over the mountain.
Get Lucky and Cover for Some of Your Hiccups
(Don’t want to fuck up too bad now)
After I turned along the base of the mountains, I came across a crystal-clear cow trough behind some barbwire. The trough was close enough to the fence that I could stick my bottle through and fill it up. I was able to sit and rehydrate some before I continued, making sure I had two liters topped off.
The base of the mountains were walls of craggy stone, and the cow fences ran along the rough ground, twisting to butt up against the walls at rough angles. Trees and bushes grew tall over the farm road providing me with patches of shade in what was turning out to be one of the hottest days on trail yet.
Get at ‘Er
The rock wall turned sharply inward, and an initially gradual slope crawled up into a steep bowl held between two protrusions of the ridgeline into the valley. The top of the ridge could be seen above the trees, scree slopes ending at sheer walls that stretched up and split at the top like chimneys. I had missed my estimate of where the GPS track would take me and could not fathom how I would make it over.
Following the line as best as I could, I started bushwhacking my way back into the wood, very quickly ascending out of the valley. In no time at all the ground grew so steep that I was clawing my way upwards. I felt exhausted by the exertion immediately and found myself slowly traveling between the shade of one tree and the next to sit down.
Occasionally, I found myself following a rough animal trail that switchbacked up the slope. Several times I came across bear scat and came to assume that was who made the disappearing path. The groove in the soil made the ascent a little easier as it crossed the slope in the path of least resistance. Eventually I found myself deposited into a massive scree chute, the boulders that filled it transitioning between a class two and three scramble as I made my way up. Progress became even slower as I cooked in the heat of the black rocks. The higher I got, the more often the rocks shifted or slid out from beneath me and I grew more and more nervous about my progress.
As I sat resting in the cool shade of a pine, a crashing off to my right caught my attention. I could not see the creature, but from the noise it was making moving across the rocks, I presumed it was a bear. Possibly the one that had left the scat I came across. I made some noise to scare it off and then went back to investigating my route.
The GPS said I was above and slightly to the south of the marked track. I had been following the chute up because it had looked to be the most obvious point of ingress toward whatever pass existed at the top. I had a good view of the far slope of the bowl to my left and presumed that I could see the easiest way up from that side. However, ahead of me to reach it was hundreds of yards of hazardously steep, jagged, loose scree through dense brush. I sat there and continued pouring over the topo, hoping that it would give me some magical insight.
Eventually, and perhaps against my better judgement, I decided to continue up the chute to see if I could find a more direct path. As I continued upward and the slope grew steeper and steeper, I rose above the scree and found myself clawing my way up a dirt slope. The dirt thinned exposing slippery bedrock the further up I made it. As I clung to the loose soil with all the strength left in my fingers, digging in my toes for diminishing purchase, I cursed myself and focused all of my attention on not fucking up what would almost certainly become an uncontrollable and possibly deadly slide back down into the rocks below. A quiet part of me laughed at the absurdity of how quick my day had turned.
Realize You Fucked Up
There have been a few times on my trips where I thought I might die. They are not usually so blatantly because of my own stubbornness and stupidity. I had to force myself to be calm so that my legs would not shake and cause me to lose my meager purchase. Dirt poured from under me with every slight movement, making my situation more and more precarious, and I had a fleeting thought of what an awful source of erosion I was being. I shoved that thought out of my head.
Start Mitigating Damage
The chute had narrowed, and I was aiming for the right wall, where I believed I could get my fingers into a hold and drag myself up what looked to be an easy class four scramble. When I finally made it to the bottom of the wall, I flung myself upon the lowest outcropping of rock I could grab and clung for dear life. The hold began to give the moment I put weight on it, a chunk of rock the size of my head almost pulling free from the wall as I scrambled to stand and get different hold higher up.
For some strange reason I had thought I would feel more secure once I made it to the wall. The scramble was certainly more solid than the loose dirt I had previously been on, but the holds were also more stretched out than I had assumed; that, and I had a whole week of food in my backpack.
I tentatively began to climb, knowing that I could not stay on the wall and there was really no way off it but up. In hindsight It was not much more difficult than a crimpy VB (the lowest rating) on the bouldering wall back at the climbing gym in Raleigh. The difficulty was the stress of the location, and the heavy pack. To pull myself up over the lip, I had to lean out over the ten-foot drop below me and drag myself up with my fingers. Adrenaline certainly helped.
Stew a Bit
Relief flooded me as I sat down on the flat of the narrow outcropping that was the top of the wall. Yet, as much as I was relieved, I knew I was not in the clear. I looked at the descent below me, knowing that it would be near impossible for me to go down it. The chute continued just as steep as before above me, but now leading to a precipitous drop. I felt chagrined for breaking one of the number one rules of route finding; do not go a way you cannot backtrack from.
I said a silent thanks for all my time spent at the climbing gym before my trip, and I wondered what the rescue crew would say if I found myself forced to press the “Oh shit” button. Would I even press the button? Ever since I decided to get a Garmin Inreach Mini on the Hayduke last year, I have wondered what it would really take for me to call for help. The truth is, I can hardly imagine me activating the emergency beacon except in the case of certainty of death, and even then, maybe only if that certain death were not actually my fault. Like if a tree fell on me and I did not expect anyone to find me, or something like that… Otherwise, I think I might deserve it.
Stay Calm and Keep Problem Solving
While I sat, I spent some time reevaluating the topos again. In fact, I was almost certain that continuing up the chute had been a bad move and that continuing up it any farther would just lead me to an impassable wall. From what I could see, the slope on the other side of the chute from me seemed fairly gradual and the topo lines showed it looking consistent all the way to the top of the ridge. If I could just get out on top of it, I thought I might be okay. The revelation was another relief.
Standing, I took a deep breath and relaxed as I looked out over the valley. It spread back, wide and flat, for miles, colorful croplands painting its bottom. A tractor busied itself moving in slow concentric circles almost directly below me. The ridgeline that separated this valley from the Similkameen River valley into Oroville, protruded out across the plain like some great knife, proud and awesome.
Continue With the Follow Through
I turned and stepped off my tiny patch of flat, stable ground. Getting onto all fours, I began clawing my way carefully up the steep loose soil of the chute again. The beds of my fingernails hurt; dry dirt jammed beneath them. The skin of my hands was dry, cracked, and bleeding from small cuts. I maneuvered my way up, away from the ledge below, before crossing across the chutes gravelly center. Loose rock and dirt poured out from beneath me with each movement. On the far side of the chute, I grabbed onto an old sun-bleached log, stood almost vertical up the high embankment, its thick branches buried into the mountain side. The logs purchase was firm, or so I hoped, as I began to climb it.
I quickly found myself groping for footing. The entire bank seemed to be coming out from under me as I tried to force my way up it. I clung, dangling from the log’s branches, tangled up in them and finding it difficult to get up the slope. I twisted my body to get a foothold on the branches beneath me, putting my entire weight on the log. Fear gripped me as I imagined the whole thing dislodging and tumbling down the chute, beating me to a bloody pulp.
Feeling under duress, I climbed my way to the top of the log, grabbing onto ropey, gnarled roots jutting out of the dirt above. A moment of desperation overtook me, and I started kicking my legs to push myself up, dislodging even more dirt. I spilled over the lip onto solid ground. Plants grew beneath me, poking up from a thicket of dropped tree branches and twigs. Looking around, I was lying in a dry riparian area, the edges of which grew thick with grass that covered the shady slopes beyond. It felt like paradise.
Forget that the Desicion You Made was Bad
Thruhiking is an adventure, no?
It was still a steep ascent from there, but I no longer felt in danger of my life. What could only be goat trails wound their way up the slope through the grass. These trails made a fairly easy path to follow to the top. I took constant breaks and sipped on the last dregs of my water, trying to make it last. As it turns out, two liters had not been nearly enough for the amount of physical exertion I had undergone. I thought little of it though, as there was a lake just on the other side of the ridge.
The trees grew dense as I neared the top and I found myself picking my way through. Despite the thicket, the path grew even more well-travelled. In fact, I started coming across cow manure and had to wonder how the hell those beasts were getting up here.
Enjoy Being Alive
With one last push through a tangle of downed trees, I came out onto a beautiful bald in the pass. Wildflowers flourished amongst the green grasses. I had made it. I felt like a fucking bad ass. Taking in a deep breath, I let out a roar of triumph.
“Well Jack, you’re not dead yet,” I breathed.
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