An object lesson

A few days ago I came home, and having a long June evening ahead and a late start to work the next day, played with our kids and did a few things in the yard, enough to stop gap responsibility, before stuffing a sleeping bag and Neoair in a small backpack, along with a few granola bars, some coffee, a Windboiler, windshirt, headlamp, and copy of Wind, Sand, and Stars.  In the interest of foreshadowing; no tarp, no tent, no raingear, no map, no compass.  The vague plan was to drive 30 minutes outside town, hike a few miles along some rough and trailless ridges, camp in the open with an exceptional sunset view, wake with the sun and hike a few miles out and be home right about when everyone would wake.

The evening went to plan.  I waffled a bit about my camp spot, with the chilling gusts seeming to endorse the possible 40 mph winds that might kick up in the night, but eventually decided to stay in the one flat spot, a bed of limestone chips not quite 6 feet between slabs, at the very summit of the last mountain before the ponderosa parks and rock fins drop emphatically to the Missouri and the civilized valley beyond.  Gear selection was key here; a stove that didn’t mind the gusts, a pad thick enough to sleep on rocks, a pack light enough to take the sheep trails and ridge scramble up.  Arranging camp was a planned exercise in keeping either a rock or my weight atop the many things, like my sleeping bag, which would have otherwise blown into the canyon below.

The wind did not disturb my sleep, but, naturally, I woke just after 0400 with rain on my face.  The city lights were distinct in the distance, but their brilliance was shaved flat by what could only be clouds.  I had backup plans, a grassy patch on a hanging meadow 50 yards below in case the wind proved too strong for sleep, loamy patches under dark timber a further 100 yards in case it rained, but instinct had me stuffing my pack and moving roughly northeast inside a minute.  Straight line to the car was perhaps 2 miles, half again at least on the ground, no set trails of any kind, and I had no illusions of how delicate several of the necessary moves would soon prove.

My peak sat above, west, and just south of a major and gentle saddle dividing two canyons.  The first crux was staying east of the spine and not ripping any holds off as I downclimbed into the trees.  The rain was steady any the windshirt sleeves began to soak up a few drops.  The spruce canopy kept much of the rain off, and the largely bare understory made a headlamp beam largely unnecessary, so long as I could feel the terrain curving vaguely away to both sides I was headed straight at the saddle.  After I hit that, it was a simple task to angle left and up to the next rough ridge.  Correctly reenacting yesterdays angle in reverse would bring the bonus of missing the worst talus, but was not necessary.  After that, turn the ridge and flatten the angle, largely sidehilling straight to the next saddle.  Here I made one of two mistakes, either hitting the ridge too high to begin with, or angling up too much along the north face.  In either case I passed above the next saddle, and lacking a compass and being paranoid about not dropping down too early, which would put me in the wrong basin entirely, I wrapped too far around the mountain.  I went down too late, but intuitively held east true once I decided to trust my gut.  I crossed the right drainage far too late once I began dropping in earnest, and overshot, hitting the handrail of the main road first.

It was just light when I got to the car, and had stopped raining.  I drove home, happy to have had the practice, and grading myself a solid B+ for navigation.  Given the circumstances I wouldn’t do anything differently, and will practice with compass on the next night hike.


3 responses to “An object lesson”

  1. Fuck that’s a good book

    1. The passages on the Andes are incredible.

  2. Meredith J D Chenault Avatar
    Meredith J D Chenault

    You forgot the part where, before you left, I inexplicably (because since when do I care about what gear you take on a solo trip) said – “What, you aren’t going to take a tarp or something?”

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