Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Birthday Learning Experiences

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
On top of that, I took most of Sunday for myself to go and have an adventure. I took our golden retriever/lab adventure buddy, Liam, on the drive with me to go and explore Sweetwater Rocks. This remote area is characterized by a meandering Sweetwater River and striking granite mountains and domes that rise up out of the desert-like plains near Jeffrey City in Central Wyoming. Split Rock, composed of two obvious granite peaks cleft by a deep, narrow canyon, is a prominent topographical and historical feature that was used as a marker of sorts along the Oregon Trail. It rises to an elevation of 7,305 feet, about 1,200 feet above the surrounding prairie.

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.

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.
I debated taking Liam at all, mostly because I didn't know how easy or challenging it would be to move around on those granite features. But when push came to shove, I let him out the front door and up into the 4Runner. That guy loves to be outside so much that it’s hard to say no!

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.
At the top of the valley, I looked over rocky rim to find a forested, snow-filled, hanging valley running perpendicular to the first. Supercool. At this point, the stoke level was high and only increasing. We followed it uphill to the east, looking for an easy way to gain the western summit of Split Rock. After some crusty snow-trudging (bunny-hopping in Liam’s case) we were rewarded with some fantastic views to the north and some mellow slab and crack systems leading right up to the ridge below the summit. We made quick work of the snowy, North-facing slopes and gained the summit in short order. At that point it was around 2:30 pm and I knew I was going to be a couple hours later than what I’d told Amber. At the summit the phone said I had 3 bars, but it wouldn’t send a text message with an update to Amber. “No big deal,” I thought. We’d be down in an hour and a half at most, with a short jog back to the car and a 30 mile drive to cell reception.

We're still having fun at this point, just below the summit.
With a quick review of the topo map and a look at what I could see, I decided to contour around to the Southeast slopes and follow a ridge down. I chose to try the ridge first, composed of continuous granite slabs, because it was relatively low angle, and you generally have more route options than what the confines of a steep canyon allow. We descended maybe 500 vertical feet until our ridgewalk ended in steep, 30 to 40 foot cliffs. This was no big deal at this point, you come to expect this when you down-climb new-to-you terrain in the mountains. We worked our way back up until we could drop into the next significant ravine to the east, and descended a couple hundred more feet before getting cliffed out by a large chockstone creating a vertical drop of 40 or more feet. “Okay,” I thought, “We’ll go back up to where there was a notch leading to that other, east-facing ravine.”

 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,
Beaton Pocket.
We traversed back to the original gully and made our way back up to the Liam-crux. I tried two other ways to get him up over the 12 foot tall wall of boulders. I stood on a snow-covered granite slab and lifted Liam up over my head, but he was too scared to put his paws down on the rock and drag himself up over the edge, and I tried it again in an even more precarious position without luck. Those efforts were taking everything I had to not slip myself while trying to get him in a position to get over the lip. Exasperated, we returned to the narrow opening under the boulder. I more or less threw him over the narrow slot under the boulder and clambered in to join him at the base of the small vertical opening. I lifted him up to the steeply-angled granite slope above me, and was relieved to find I could wedge my body against the rocks behind him and rest my arms. He was scared enough that he was just lying there against the rock, not trying to pull himself up at all. I was able to reset my body twice, pushing him up further each time by his ass, until he finally realized he could scramble up out of the hole.

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.
We were still far from out of there, but I was certainly breathing easier after that. We made pretty quick work of regaining the summit ridge. I had a sense that Liam understood it was business time- it seemed like there was far less whining and balking at the random scrambles and leaps on the way up. We found our tracks along the slope of the canyon separating the two peaks of Split Rock and followed them back up and around the western peak. We had maybe an hour of daylight left at that point, and perhaps against better sense I opted to go straight down and off the mountain by its north flank rather than try to pick our way down our original route up to the saddle. The map and my view told me the slope was wide and mellow with little risk of getting cliffed out. The snow covering the majority of the north facing slope made for quick work getting down by a combination of running, stumbling, and glissading. The mountain spat us out onto the cactus-covered prairie on top of a herd of rather surprised deer. Our northerly departure left Liam and I with several miles to run around the miniature mountain range and back to the car, which felt like a tall order after all the drama of the day.

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. 

I, for one, am going to have a hard time forgetting it any time soon.

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