This past birthday weekend may go down as one of my more memorable for a few reasons. To kick it off, I had a great birthday dinner and drinks on Friday that Amber actually took the whole day off of work to prepare for. Talk about an amazing girlfriend!
|The bold, continuous ridge leads to the western peak of Split Rock.|
The eastern peak and the cleft separating them are just visible to
the right of the high point.
|View from the first climb up to the ridge line's western saddle|
I’d heard interesting things about the mountains, but more than anything, their sharp contrast with the rest of the landscape is what really drew my attention. It’s pretty weird and wild out there anyway, but unique features like the Sweetwater Rocks will always give me an itch to explore. Split Rock, as it turns out, would instill a few memories and lessons along the way.
I’d say there were a few main takeaways from Sunday.
First off, mountains and rock of any size can be serious in the right (or wrong) situations.
In the mountains as in most ventures in life, you’re only as fast and able as the slowest and least able in your group. It’s the old “chain is only as strong as the weakest link” metaphor. But as the leader, or at least the most experienced, your responsibility is not to pull on the chain until it breaks, but rather to understand the limitations of those in your party and make plans and decisions accordingly to get everyone home safely. There is a fine balance to walk here, at least with human partners. You want people to be challenged, to create new experiences, and for them to achieve beyond what they thought possible. But generally you don’t want to create a sufferfest, instill real terror, or at worst put them in a situation that results in their physical injury or death. You want to load the chain safely and appropriately.
My first mistake was taking a partner whose abilities were not sufficient for what I estimated we could encounter. Granted, I had hoped for much easier moving (even running), but it falls on the leader to practice the precautionary principle.
And mountains don’t give a shit about your hopes and dreams.
And mountains don’t give a shit about your hopes and dreams.
My second mistake was the stubborn insistence to find a different way down than what we came up. This was in part because I was assuming, should we go back up the way we came, we would also have to follow our initial route back down the south-facing valley. In my mind, that seemed like it would take much longer than just improvising a new way down where we were. And that would have been the case if I were alone. But accounting for my partner, back up and over was the only certain- and safe- way down. The option to bail out down the north slope was lucky, though it is also testament to the value of keeping a clear head and constantly reassessing the situation at hand.
My third mistake was forcing my uncertain and inexperienced partner to make a committing move that I was unsure he’d be able to get back up if needed. I don’t need to elaborate much on that one. It’s another thing if they’re unsure because they’re new and a little scared, and you, being wise and experienced, know that it’s within their abilities. But you’re just as likely to screw that guess up too. Real fear has the ability to totally and completely compromise one’s ability to overcome an obstacle, no matter how easy it may seem to an observer.
I think most directly, I learned that I need to be more careful with my four-legged partner. Dogs are the most trusting, unconditionally-loving adventure buddies we will ever have. The enthusiasm of most dogs will drive them to follow you wherever they are able, without a thought for their own safety and well-being. It’s hard to know how much is too much for them, and they probably won’t tell you until they’re hurting pretty badly. I don’t want to push Liam’s limits like that again.
I think our dog just taught me to be more responsible.
For the (long) backstory for these learning experiences with Liam, read on below.
|Mountains. Water. Life.|
We parked at the Cranner Rock/Split Rock pullout just over an hour’s drive from Lander. I stuffed a 20 oz water bottle, a couple snacks, a camera, and my phone into my Ultraspire Alpha race vest, and Liam and I jogged down into the valley bottom below. The Sweetwater River was not nearly as iced over as I’d hoped and appeared deeper than I wanted to suddenly submerge myself in. It took us about 30 minutes of running and hiking to find a place I felt comfortable crossing the open water (Liam had already crossed several times, one of which had resulted in an unexpected bath). From there, we went straight for a large valley that dropped steeply off the western ridgeline of Split Rock. No trails wanted or needed. As we approached the rock, we scared off a small group of whitetail deer from a cottonwood grove where a small stream issued from rocky valley bottom. Mountains bring water and life to an otherwise stark and dry landscape, and it only served to fuel my excitement to explore.
We reached the ridgeline in about an hour and a half of granite scrambling. Liam and I took our time moving around and compromising on routes, figuring out a system- not too steep or boulder-y or sharp for Liam, not too brushy or small or crawl-y for me. They way up wasn’t really very technically challenging, but I was pretty confident, based on my impression of the features and the topo map on my phone, that we could readily find another way down that would be even easier. I generally prefer a loop anyway (as opposed to an out-and-back route) because you get to see more new country.
|The snow-filled valley running parallel to the north of Split |
Rock's western ridge.
|We're still having fun at this point, just below the summit.|
Up to this point, I’d been dragging poor Liam up and down a lot of obstacles that he was not stoked about. We’d get to a 5 foot drop that was an easy down climb for a human, and I would have to grab him by the collar to forcefully pull him over, and then use the collar to help control his landing. And for the taller obstacles on the way back up, I would just pick his 75 lb furry self up and push him up and over the edge by his ass.
We crested the notch of the east facing gully, and the east face looked slightly more promising with a lesser overall slope, so we started down again. Maybe a hundred feet down, we reached a pinch point where a bunch of huge boulders had piled up and made a small cliff band in the middle of the ravine. I quickly found a vertical hole behind a large boulder that dropped down to a small cave-like passage under the boulder that exited into the ravine below. An easy scramble for a human and a hard sell for poor Liam, I convinced myself that if we just made it past this point, we’d have an easy go down from there. I dragged his terrified ass down into the hole, and then picked him up over my back as I laid down over a too-narrow-at-canine-height passage through the rocks to let him scamper over my back and out into the open. I said aloud to myself, “We better be able to get down from here,” because I did not know if I’d be able to get him back up that same way. In the world of climbing things, we call that a “committing” maneuver, and not always the wisest of choices.
Longer story shorter, we cliffed out again a little ways below, scrambled over another ridge that cliffed out, and then into another ravine that cliffed out below us too. Afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get Liam back up that narrow, vertical chute I had pulled him down earlier, I opted to try and go up the ravine we were in. We came to another impassible cliffband above us. Now it was getting late, and getting caught out in the dark was becoming a very realistic possibility. On top of that, Liam was limping a little, bleeding a bit from a couple paws, and obviously exhausted from some combination of the physical and emotional stress of the day. I looked down at this expectant, wholly trusting, loving little being and realized I had put him in unintentionally put him in harm’s way. I myself could pretty readily get down off the mountain with minor route finding and 4th class scrambling. But it was terrain that I could not take Liam down even if carrying him was a viable option, as I would need both arms to get myself down. My throat tightened with a sudden sadness and regret for what I had put Liam through already and what was yet to come, but I quickly resolved that the only way left for us to get off the mountain was to retrace our path back up over the summit ridge.
|Back down on softer, flatter ground in the valley to the north, |
|Running along the highway back to the car. The dark strip is the|
snow and tree-filled valley, and the high point is Split Rock.
A few miles of running, another frigid crossing of the Sweetwater River, and we were in the 4Runner headed for home. Liam got a lot of food that night, and bonus bacon grease on his breakfast the next day, and a whole lot of pets. He’s sore and his pads are rubbed raw from the granite slabs, but he’s a-o-k. I think his dogbrain-amnesia has already allowed him to forget about the adventure completely.