Thursday, December 07, 2006

When you were young

It's freezing cold so I've treated myself to a nice night of some drawing and listening to Sigur Ros. I wish I had some sort of dark spirit to sip on. That'd be nice. And a big wood-paneled room in which to do it all. But alas, this place will have to do.

I was fortunate enough also to catch Ed Viesturs on the Daily Show tonight. For several years in the late 90's when I was a total climbing obsessive, he was my favorite climber. For those who don't know, he's the greatest American climber ever and arguably the best ever behind probably Reinhold Messner. He's the only American to have climbed all 14 of the 8,000 meter peaks (including Everest 6 times) and all without supplemental oxygen. Most importantly, he does it for the right reasons and is always smart about it. I always fancied my climbing days as being much the same but looking back I know they weren't near as smart. I was more Karakauer than Viesturs for sure.

In late July of 1999, I climbed two of Colorado's fourteeners (14,000 ft. peaks) in one day starting at about 5:30 AM, totally solo. And then as it was my last day there, I got in my car and drove the almost 14 hours back to Dallas. Total time: a little over 25 hours. Oh yeah, and one of the stupidest things I've ever done. I was literally slapping myself awake somewhere near Fort Worth as I made the final 20 or so miles back to my apartment. But that was who I was then. I thought I was invincible.

But this next one is even worse.

That same year on the Fourth of July weekend, I drove from Dallas to the nearest mountains outside Ruidoso, NM. As I got in too late on Friday to go to the ranger station and get/verify my maps, I just drove on up to my campsite with minimal provisions and a couple of crude maps I printed out. I figured it would be enough. Saturday I hiked up to the top of Apache Peak which is the summit of the ski area and everything went fine. But Sunday the wheels came off.

I decided to do a little loop job up to a pass and then back down through a series of canyons I didn't know at all. I'm usually pretty handy with a compass and map but something went horribly wrong on the descent. Despite ascending the green and lush eastern slopes I somehow ended up coming down a very dry box canyon and despite every bone in my body telling me this was too dry to possibly be the eastern slopes I pressed on until I finally came to the dry, dirty, totally deserted, western end of the trail and realized I was now 6 miles from my car. Not a soul in sight. My car was on the other side of the ridge. To make matters worse I had left my crappy sandwich I had made for lunch in that same car. I had thrown on my pack in such a rush that morning I totally blanked on grabbing it from the front seat. Then again, I moved so quickly in those days (no flower smellin', nmo view enjoyin') I figured I'd be up and back down before it would matter. Clearly that would not be the case.

Looking back up at the 12,000 ft. peaks on the ridge I could see they were now covered in dark clouds, the afternoon rainstorms hammering them. Retreat was not an option. Nor was trying to go back over later in the day/night with dwindling water and no light (this whole thing was a clear vioation of like 8 backcountry rules). I was proper screwed. For reasons I'll never understand, I began hiking away from the mountains down a road and out into the western desert. I walked for about ten miles, sipping water only when I was completely parched, until finally I realized the severity of my predicament. I hadn't seen a soul in hours. There I was, walking along, sobbing and cursing myself for being so stupid and making such a rookie mistake. I think I even sat down like twice and said "this is it. You're going to die in the desert because you're stupid." A lifetime spent in the mountains and I'd somehow ended up 180-degrees in the wrong direction in mountains I didn't really know with maps that were anything but complete and no food and like a half a liter of water left. I deserved it.

Finally, miraculously, later that afternoon a park service truck came down the road and I desperately waved him down. He was an older guy and he looked shocked to see me and said something like "don't get too many people down this way. If I hadn't seen you, you might be out here for a few days." I told him my story and then hopped in with him and he turned around and then drove me the ten more miles out to the main highway (that was a 20 mile road I was on). He proceeded to drive me the total seventy (70) miles it took to get me back to my car. It took almost 2 hours to make the circuitous trek west, north, east and back south to where my car had been parked.

Most amazingly, he never admonished me once. Then again, we spent the entire ride swapping climbing stories about Colroado and how I'd learned to ski in NM and so I guess he knew I wasn't on some deathwish out there. I didn't even get his name when I got out because I was blabbing so many "thank you's" and "I'm sorry's." He couldn't have been nicer.

I got home and tried several times to contact the Forest Service office out there and describe him in the hopes of being able to thank him but never did. He, for lack of a better way to put it, saved my life. I'm sure he knew that and perhaps that's why he'd been so forgiving. Perhaps he just understood the siren's song of unforgiving mountains to a young man.

The whole weekend was part of my training leading up to an ascent of Longs Peak in Colorado which I studied so well I could have done it blindfolded. I was lucky enough to have my father join me on that one. It was one of my best days of climbing I've ever spent. This is a picture I took this past summer of its dominating East Face.

Years later, I would read Aaron Ralston's fascinating bio "Between a Rock and Hard Place" and saw so many similarities between us it reminded me how lucky I'd been. We both got in our fair share of pinches. We were two young guys determined to get the most out of the mountains, preferably solo. It of course ended up costing him his right arm in the end.

Here's to lessons learned the first time, I suppose.

I've only told like 5 people that story.

You know, I should be getting paid to tell these.


Blogger minus five said...

this is why i don't attempt outdoor activities or activities of any kind. i always get myself into the dumbest situations.

11:43 AM  

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