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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tendency to go to extremes

I am known among family and friends for periodically risking my life in dangerous adventures. Often, I am asked why I do these things. I never can quite put it into words. For one thing, I never plan to risk my life I just like spending time alone outdoors and then...things happen. A few days ago, as I found myself doing a class 4 climb down a mountain, alone, off the trail, with no map and no climbing equipment, no real idea where I was (other than the fact that I was in the Sawtooth range of the Olympic National Forsest a days climb away from the Staircase Ranger Station)I decided to do some soul searching. How and why do I get into these situations?

How it Started

So, I had this idea, of visiting a wilderness area in solitude and spending time in meditation, communing with nature and with the divine. I wanted to fast for a day or two while I was there, so I didn't bring much food, I just brought a change of clothes, my journal, some Art supplies and my sketchpad. I put everything in my Backpack and rolled my summer sleeping bag inside my bivvy sack and secured it to my back pack.

So far so good, right? I mean not everyone's cup of tee to sleep alone out in the woods with no food, but its is a fairly safe thing for an eccentric nature lover to do.

I had found out on the internet that the nearest wilderness to Olympia WA is the Skokomish Wilderness area, just North of lake Cushman. So I printed off the Mapquest directions and biked out there... 40 miles...and the Mapquest drections weren't really specific, in terms of getting to the Wildrness area, but just got me to the nearest town which was Hoodsport. I left at 3 pm.

OK...Maybe this is where I start to diverge from most people. Perhaps most people wouldn't just head off on a 40 mile bike trip without a clear idea where they were going, knowing it will get dark soon and that will be out in the middle of nowhere. Did I mention I was totally broke?

But to me this isn't really a problem, because I have a Gortex bivvy sack, I don't need a motel room. I just need a quiet out of the way place to camp. I call it stealth camping. And although, I had never been there before I knew there would be woods to sleep in along the way.

So yeah, it got dark, but not until I was almost all the way there and then I snuck into a park, that was already closed for the season, and laid out my bivvy and spent the night. So that went well.

Would most people do that? I dunno, probably not. Most people are afraid of the dark, too, though. I am not. Technically it was illegal, but I don't find it unethical, since I didn't disturb anything or leave any trash around.

So that went without a hitch. I hadn't started fasting yet, but my snack supply was running low, but I did have a couple cans of sardines left and two cans of Vienna sausages.

The next day I found a Park that bordered the wilderness area. This is where a little more research would have come in handy. The Staircase National Park, did border the wilderness area, but there were no trails leading to it, it was on the other side of, basically some mountains. The way to access the wilderness was from the other side along the Hamma Hamma River, not from Lake Cushman.

Once again, what would a "normal" person do? Get discouraged and peddle back home? Go 10-15 miles back into town and get more information, and then come back?

To me those were not options I considered. I decided that the simplest solution would be to enter the wilderness by climbing the mountains. The only problem was, I had no maps.

Another, dilemma I encountered though was that according to my research on the internet, it was free to hike and Camp in the Skokomish Wildrness and required no permit. But, here in the Staircase there were fees and registration was required.

I had only 3 bucks on me. I needed more to camp over night.

Once again what would a normal person do? I am really trying to figure this out. Maybe never go to a strange place overnight with only three bucks on you? So then they wouldn't have gotten to this point. If they had, what would they do? Turn around and go back?

These options didn't occur to me. I decided instead to simply avoid the Ranger! I figure if I don't tell him I'm here, or where I am going, I don't have to pay him. It would have been nice to get some more info, but then he would ask me for my trail pass and I wouldn't have it and then I would get a ticket.

So trying to look casual, I strolled past the Ranger station, without registering, and making a quick glance, I noticed a sign: Ranger Out on Patrol. So I figured great, he's not here. So I walked up and got some free maps, that turned out to be totally inadequate.

I think its a conspiracy really. My theory is that Rangers don't really want people going into the Wildrness, so that is why these free maps are so sucky. The free map just showed some easy trails, the kind old people and small kids could walk safely on. It gave me only a Vague idea how to get over the mountains to the Wilderness area.

So I headed up the trail. I encountered a nice couple picking mushrooms, probably, illegally, BTW. Lots of fun harmless activities are against the law in These Parks I have found. I asked them how to get to the Skokomish wilderness Area. They hadn't heard of it. I asked about the Horse tracks. They said they Ranger had just gone up the trail with a team of 5 horses in tow, carrying square metal boxes. They said it looked like he would be up there for a while. They gave me some mushrooms and wished me luck.

So, here was the plan, Continue on the trail to Flap Jack Lakes, if I hear horses coming down the trail, assume its the Ranger, jump off the trail and hide in the woods and let him pass by, then I won't see him for the rest of the trip and won't have to worry about getting a ticket.

So that's what I did. It happened exactly like that. You see, I do plan. I am able to create contingency plans for worst case scenarios. I was prepared and my plan worked.

I heard horses, I jumped of the trail into some thick brush and the Ranger never knew I was there and went on by with his six horses. I was only four feet away. The funny thing is the lead horse knew. It balked and wouldn't go down the trail. The Ranger just assumed it was being difficult and coaxed it along saying "Come on, Let's go. Down the trail...That's it...down the trail." He didn't seem like such a bad guy I thought. But still in a way he was the enemy. He had a gun and a badge and represented authority, and I am a rebel. I am like a wild animal. I like to sleep in the woods, I like to pick berries and mushrooms and don't see any reason to have to explain my actions or ask permission, or pay tribute to, some man in a Uniform, carrying a gun. If I'm not hurting anyone than why should I?

So just up the trail, I find an unmarked side trail, leading up the side of the mountains. Aha! This must be the way to the Wilderness and its unmarked because they don't want anyone going up here, unless they knew about it ahead of time, like serious mountaineering type people.

So I ran up the switchbacks putting as much distance between me and the Ranger as I could. There was a Forest Fire here in 1985 that killed a lot of big trees, so there were lots of big trees across the trial. Still, I was able to clamber over them and the trail was fairly easy to follow, it just cut back and forth up the side of a mountain, the name of which, as yet unknown to me. I found out later, it was Mt Lincoln.

The Trail finally disappeared and I had to scramble for several hours through a morass of thick brush and fallen logs, My clothes became soaked and wet from dew and covered with soot from the burned trees. It was then that it occured to me that my peaceful commune in the Wilderness was not going as planned.

I think what it is is that I just have too much energy. This mountain presented itself to me and I just needed to climb it and come Hell or High water (literally) I just had to get to the top. I hadn't planned it, but there it was and I had to do it.

I got passed the burn and the thick brush, and it was a wonderful view. There was not a cloud in the Sky and all I could see around me from Horizon to Horizon were endless mountain peaks, some snow covered, some not. Seemingly endless wilderness. It was starting to get dark, so I made camp in a forested plateu, under a big dead tree.

So the next day, I reached the summit and came down a little ways over the other side. I realized then with my clear view, that the ridge was shaped like a 'y' and I was at the tail end of the 'y' so going down the other side of the mountain would not get me into the wilderness area! The wilderness are was inside the top part of the 'y' so I would either have to walk a long the ridge or descend into a valley and climb another mountain to get to it. This, I did not want to do. First off the ridge would be nearly impossible to traverse in that way and after a day and a half of climbing I did not feel like climbing down into a valley just to climb back up again, plus I knew it would take a lot of energy and I had no food left.

So, I started climbing down the mountain making my own trail. Fortunately there were lots of berries to eat. That is another thing about being "oh so prepared" like everyone else seems to be. Being unprepared really teaches you survival skills. If I had brought a bunch of food, would I have learned that I can sustain myself for a day just on berries? Would I have discovered three varieties of edible berries? No, I wouldn't have. I would have eaten a couple noticed how many berries were around and made a mental note that "if I had to" I could just about survive on these for a day. Then I would have had my sandwich or whatever.

But as it turned out, these berries were delicious! They were the best berries I have ever eaten and I filled up on them and they gave me enough energy to climb down the mountain over the next day and a half.

Here is where things got hairy though.

Here is the problem with seeking spontaneous adventure and not preparing beforehand: Sometimes all you discover are things like "This route doesn't work." Its like reinventing the wheel only worse because its more like reinventing a failed prototype of the wheel. That's something that is not as fun to learn as things like what its like to sustain yourself on nothing but wild berries for a day.

So as I descended the mountain, I learned that I wasn't going down a good route. I got a little concerned when I began to see too much sky between the trees, implying that what was in front of them was not more trees going down a steady slope but rather a big drop off over a sheer rock face. I found a crack going through this area that was a steep climb but doable. Then I came to what looked like a dead end. Above me was a steep climb that would lead back up to the top of the mountain again, below me was what appeared to be a 60 foot drop.

I wondered if this were the end. I seriously wondered if this is where I would die. For some reason it didn't immediately occur to me that I could climb back up. So determined was I to go forward.

But then after a short while I shook myself out of this melancholy state. Though there was no way to climb down with my bulky pack, without the pack it looked doable. So with that, I threw it down 60 feet and climbed down.

I felt like I passed some type of threshold. I could feel it in my body. I changed just a little bit. The key is not to worry about things out of my control, but to instead focus on what I am capable of, what I can do physically. I could feel in my body how it was possible for me to climb down. I admit I sometimes spend too much time "in my head" but these rocks were solid; tangible. I seemed to know instinctively how to climb down. I could trust my body.

After I made it down, I picked up my pack. I had blown out a clip and my sleeping bag precariously hung from the remaining strap. So I repacked it. I found out later that I had blown several art markers to bits.

I soon came to a stream and decided to follow it off of the mountain, it was soggy going, but went will until the creek turned into a series of steep water falls. So for the rest of the day I basically did a class three climb down boulders along this waterfall for 10 hours until it got dark. Then I spent the night on a relatively flat area, the size of a queen sized bed right by the falls. I slept well.

The next day I climbed down more class three waterfalls for about 4 hours and until What I found out was called "slate Creek" emptied back into the boundaries of the Staircase Recreation area. Then I walked out to where I had stashed my Bike and peddled the 40 miles home.


I can't tempt fate forever, However part of my wants to continue to challenge myself. What I should do is acknowledge that I have a tendency to want to do extreme sports and go on far flung adventures. I need to joing a mountaineering club or get with other like minded folks and PLAN some adventures, that will be safer yet more extreme.


  1. It's those moments when you feel you're fully alive, when on the edge of the cliff. I enjoy wild camping too. I did a month long bike tour last summer and did stealth camping for about half of that time.

    I've been reading a lot about polar explorers recently.

    Fridtjof Nansen
    Robert Falcon Scott
    Roald Amundsen
    Ernest Shackleton

    Some fascinating stories there.

  2. I love those type of guys!I like reading about their dogs too. Good to hear from you again Timo.