A Peak Too High

by Bruce Patterson, July 17, 2013

“Ambition makes the same mistake concerning power that avarice makes as to wealth. Ambition begins by accumulating as a means of happiness, and finishes by continuing to accumulate as an end.” — Charles C. Colton, 1870

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The first peak I bagged is called Poppy. It was at the head of our little box canyon and I must have been five or six years old when, tagging along with the big kids, I got to its top. I benefited mightily from the post-WW2 camping craze, and while our pilot and captain was my dad who enjoyed fishing, hiking, star-gazing and tending campfire, I most enjoyed getting atop a high spot; any high spot would do. By the time I became a husband and then a father of two boys, I’d been bagging peaks my whole life. Virtually all were nameless prominences near where ever it was I happened to be, but I’d also made a few non-technical climbs in the alpines of various mountain ranges. So naturally I’d wish to pass on this avocation to my wife and children.

I started the boys off early, too, beginning with the peaks above Yorkville. When Jeff was old enough to sit a backpack, I hauled him most the way to the top of Sonoma County’s Mount Saint Helena, then spotted him as he ran nearly all the way back down. Before Jeff turned eight, he’d hiked up trails in Yosemite Valley, Sequoia and lots of other places. Also, since every Christmas we went south to my older sister’s place at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, I made it a point to cut the boy’s climbing teeth in Owens Valley’s Alabama Hills, what you might call my favorite spot that just happens to be kind of on the way; it’s a straight-shot starting from Reno.

The Alabama Hills are a massive bronze-skinned labyrinthine jumble of monzonite granite boulder piles scattered high above the pancake-flat valley floor with its recently “restored” Owens River (seeing some water sure beats looking down at rocks and bleached bones). Peeking eastward into the morning glare coming off the tall, boney and buck-naked Inyo Mountains, you see their shadows shrinking and then disappearing into their tumbling dry wash wrinkles. You see their flood-lit alluvial fans spreading like silt skirts that by themselves stand taller than most mountain ranges on earth. Come sundown, you see the sun kissing the Sierra summits goodnight and, verily, it’s a sight to behold. The local boosters call Owens Valley “the land of 40 mile shadows” and for once they ain’t lying.

Since in the Alabama Hills you can climb up keyhole slots between towering fins and arrive atop a vertical cliff, and because the surfaces of the rocks are the texture of a giant woodworker’s misshapen sheets of extra-coarse sandpaper, they’re an ideal place to teach beginners how to watch where they set their feet, hands, asses and heads. And then hiking gets awfully instructive when you’re inside a cave with a packed-boulder cathedral roof and, unable to proceed beyond a crevice, you’re forced to retreat. Like with arriving at a false summit only to be blocked, it’s called being lost; lost then un-lost. If my boys had been infantry trainees, the Alabama Hills were their live-fire exercises.

Before deciding that the four of us would have some fun bagging Oregon’s South Sister (10,358ft), I thought I’d done my due diligence. Because Anderson Valley is just a whisker above sea level, over the years we’d spent plenty of time camping and hiking in the high country; more than enough to know that, given a proper amount of acclimatizing, altitude sickness wasn’t likely to be a problem for any of us. We’d done plenty of warm-up climbs, too, the last being the High Sierra’s Dana Peak (13,053ft.) above Yosemite’s Tioga Pass (9,945ft.).

Now I was brought up to believe that the time to feel anxious about making an important decision is before, and not after, you’ve made it. Wiser advice has rarely been offered but it comes with one major proviso: you can’t go off half-cocked. You’ve gotta do your homework and you’ve gotta keep your appetites smaller than your wits.

But boy did I have a grand plan for that summer’s two week camping and mountain climbing sojourn. First stop Oregon’s Crater Lake. We’d catch the first boat out to Wizard Island and the last boat off it. The next day, as a final little warm-up, we’d hike up Mt. Scott, at 8,924 feet the caldera’s highest point. Then we’d break camp and mosey on north to my favorite little railroad and lumber town, a place called Bend (short for what the backwash settlers anointed “The Big Bend of the Deschutes River” although, laying eyes on the spot, you see there ain’t nothing “big” about it). In Bend we’d rent a motel room with a swimming pool and, as our final preparation, pamper ourselves like poodles while eating like horses. Next day, after a big roadhouse breakfast at dawn, we’d drive up to the trailhead at Devil’s Lake, secure our car, get under our backpacks (little Jeff carried his clothes, sleeping bag, mat, dry snacks and a WW2 war surplus canteen) and make for the Pacific Crest Trail.

Since, from the parking lot, the six-mile-long trail up South Sister’s south slope ascends nearly 5,000 vertical feet, I knew there was no chance the four of us could make it up and back in a day. The trip up Dana had been only a three mile, 3,100-foot assent, and that had taken us the better part of eight hours. So, having consulted the best map I could find, I’d decided we’d get to the summit of South Sister via the backdoor. After ascending up a trail to what’s called the Wikiup Plain—the scrubby top of an ancient lava flow—we’d arrive at the PCT, follow it north for a couple of miles and then camp overnight. A massive juvenile obsidian flow called Rock Mesa bulges out of the base of the mountain’s southwest ridge and I knew that, next morning, ascending up its edge with its inevitable network of animal tracks would be a cinch. Once above Rock Mesa, we’d switchback our way up the west face and meet the established trail about halfway to the summit. Not only would we lop a couple of miles off the hike, we’d also cut at least 500 vertical feet off our accent. I figured the up and back would take us ten hours at max and, since the days were fourteen hours long, we’d have plenty of flex time.

So, after we hiked past the broad clubbed foot of Rock Mesa, we made camp under a forest just above a meadow holding an ice cold gurgling creek. After relaxing most of the afternoon, sleeping like lambs and then eating big bowls of oat meal and raisins at dawn, we began our hopeful trek. Minus the backpacks (mine carried only water, homemade trail mix, four light sweaters, three puny plastic ponchos and a reliable flashlight) we made good time. The animal freeway beside Rock Mesa was as smooth as I’d expected and we arrived at its head without breaking a sweat. The morning was sunny, the wind still, the birds were singing, the ‘peckers pecking and the air smelled of pine. The animal track continued up the mountain, single lane now, but above us spread terraces above terraces and—this is the damned trouble with relying on topo maps with 80-foot contour intervals—instead of following the path of least resistance we wound up working our way through an obstacle course stood on end, our advance not switchbacks but long, droopy loops. By the time we arrived at the trail we were already fairly well tuckered. We’d also lost a good deal of time (all columns move only as fast as their slowest member).

After building a small rock cairn to mark our return path, we started up the trail—gee, nobody here—and while it wasn’t as steep as what we’d just come up, in a couple of hours it got even steeper and then steeper still. Worse, if the trail wasn’t made of tinkling pieces of loose scree, it was ground-up pumice at times as soft as mud. So we’d take a step up and then give back some, one foot after another, step and backslide, step and backslide. South Sister’s a volcano, after all. Yet somehow I’d forgotten to take that into account. Pretty soon—give me a talus slope anytime—I started doubting we’d accomplish our mission.

Although Oregon is situated along one of the most active stretches of the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire, and even though everywhere you look the landscape is spotted with volcanoes young and old, large and small, nobody calls them that. Study an Oregon landscape map and everywhere the land is full of “buttes.” I mean, there are more buttes in Oregon than in the Beehive State of Utah; more buttes than in the entire Four Corners region. It doesn’t matter that, with rare exceptions, by no stretch of the imagination can the landforms be mistaken for genuine buttes, that’s what Oregonians call them. The word “volcano” never passes anyone’s lips.

Up and up we go, our little adventure evolving into a defeated army’s Long March toward Eventual and Eternal Victory, what had seemed like a winning strategy now a noble goal to be stuck to, an obstacle to overcome, a prize to be seized. We break over a ridge above a cirque holding the snow-lined turquoise water of a tarn called Teardrop Lake; the highest “lake” in Oregon it counts as. We climb until, past noon, the tarn is reduced to the size of a button on a raggedy long coat. The view keeps expanding and, when it opens northward, I frown at the sight of a squall line blowing in from the Willamette Valley. I urge everyone to be still and we hear the murmuring rumble of distant thunder. Knowing that prudence dictates that we turn back—I’m hauling precious live cargo, after all—I decide we’re just too close, and the storm too far away, to fall shy. As pilot and captain, I crack the whip while earnestly promising all assembled that, if looking from the top of that little rise just up there we still can’t see the summit then, on my scout’s word of honor, then we’ll give up the ghost and head on down.

So the four of us top the rise and there it is not 200 yards away: the straight and level, snow-flecked rim of the summit crater. The sky’s blackening and the wind’s whipping up, but finally our objective is smiling down upon us. While Jeff and Trisha are done—poor little Jeff is flat-out exhausted and Trisha’s mad as hell—Abel and I push on, he wishing to please and me being mule stubborn. Clouds envelop us as we summit and, looking down at the dirty circular snowfield filling the crater is a sorry substitute for luxuriating in one of the world’s great panoramas. Knowing it’d be stupid for us to linger just for this, we stay just long enough to catch our breath before, scrawny feathers in our caps, beating a hasty retreat.

That’s when the real fun started. While, in terms of exertion, going down is a breeze next to getting up, it’s also more dangerous since gravity is with you. Also, with shredded leg muscles, you lose some of your surefootedness. Then, like a hungry and thirsty horse heading home to its stable, you get the urge to hurry. Throw in the slipperiness of the trail, and the cautious pace I held to as point man, and we didn’t make too much better time than we’d made getting up. While the thunderstorm never got near us, the sun was sinking and I realized it just might set before we reached our camp and, for the first time, I felt fear. So while safety was my number one goal, making it back to our camp before dark came in a close second seeing how they were entwined. So there’d be no more dawdling. From now on the only sightseeing we’d be doing was watching our feet.

Rock Mesa was our benchmark and, when the trail led us back to within sight of it, just down the hill I saw a gentle canyon pointing straight at it. Our cairn was still a good ways down below but, given the difficulties we’d had getting up that way, I decided to use the canyon as a maybe short-cut. So we left the trail and carefully climbed down until we came to an impassable dry waterfall cut between basalt cliffs. The others took a break while I scouted ahead and then returned and led them forward, a procedure I repeated multiple times, my anxieties growing until, just before last light, we arrived back at our camp.

Although their sense of relief allowed them to forgot about how disappointed and mad they were at me, I wasn’t fool enough to publicly announce that all’s well that ends well. I was too busy castigating myself, for one thing. That plus figuring how best I could best make amends. In addition to resolving to try’n to be a sweetheart for the rest of the trip, I scaled back my ambitions. Our plan had been to summit He Devil Mountain in the 7 Devils of Idaho above Hell’s Canyon, but now we’d just make the attempt and see how it went (because of danger, we stopped about 20 feet shy of the summit panorama). I also scratched from our itinerary bagging Ruby Dome in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. Instead we’d mosey on up to the crest at the head of Lamoille Canyon at a place called Liberty Gap—a walk in the park.

Over the coming years we’d continue to bag peaks, but never again would I lead my family on a forced march. Even if once or twice I was sorely tempted, Trisha wouldn’t have it.

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